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: Luke 2:13-14
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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s December 23, 2017, and this is Day 21 of my series of Advent podcasts. You’re listening to the Vince Guaraldi Trio from 1965, and their very interesting rearrangement of “The Little Drummer Boy,” called “My Little Drum.” This comes from the 1965 soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas.
When we hear the Christmas story in the Bible, it often sounds better in the classic King James translation. In fact, many people of my generation think it sounds best of all when we hear Linus read it in the TV special. Let’s listen to that now:
Of course, our preference for one translation over another often comes down to style or nostalgia. But the classic King James rendering of the second half of verse 14 is misleading, if not wrong: “on earth peace, good will toward men.”
This translation makes it seem as if the angels are pronouncing God’s favor toward everyone in the world… without condition. And let’s face it: if that were indeed what God’s Word intends to say, well… it would fit in nicely in our culture, which values “inclusion” above all other values.
Just last Christmas, a columnist in the New York Times named Nicholas Kristoff interviewed Tim Keller, the now recently retired pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. Over the course of decades Keller had great success reaching young people in their twenties and thirties with an uncompromising gospel message in one of the most secular cities in the world. I was glad to see Keller being taken seriously by the so-called “paper of record.”
Kristoff told Keller that while he greatly admired all the good work that Christians do around the world in the name of Christ, he doesn’t like the exclusivity of Christianity—that we preach that salvation comes only through faith in Christ. What about other religions? What about Gandhi, for example? Kristoff asked, “Is Gandhi in hell because he wasn’t a Christian?”
Keller wisely sidestepped that question—since it’s not our job to say who’s in hell and who isn’t. Instead, Keller dug underneath Kristoff’s question: Yes, by the world’s standards of course Gandhi was a good person. His example of courage and self-sacrifice is hard to beat. Here’s the problem, though: Is Kristoff implying that we ought to be as good as Gandhi in order to be saved? How many of us are that good?
Or what about Mother Theresa? Sell all our possessions and minister to the sick and dying on the streets of Calcutta? Do we have to be that good? My point—and Keller’s point—is that if our personal goodness is what saves us—and we have to be really, really good, like Gandhi or Mother Theresa, that kind of religion would ultimately be far more exclusive than Christianity.
It would exclude me, for instance. And most everyone else. Because most of us cannot or will not be that good. I can’t. I am a moral failure in so many ways.
O.K., you might say, but do we really have to be that good to be saved? Is that what God expects?
No. You don’t have to be as good as Gandhi or Mother Theresa. Jesus says you have to be much, much better: “Be perfect,” he says in the Sermon on the Mount, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
How many of us are perfect?
In fact, Jesus was always saying things that made the “good people” of his day feel deeply insecure about their own goodness. For example, to a man who’s obeying nearly all ten of the Ten Commandments—probably a better man, objectively speaking, than any of us—Jesus says, “There’s one more thing you have to do in order to be saved: sell all of your possessions and give the money to the poor.” How many of us are willing to do that? Then Jesus says things like, “If you get angry with someone, it’s as if you’ve committed murder.” Well, who hasn’t done that? Or if you’ve lusted after someone, you’ve committed adultery. Well, who hasn’t done that? Or if you curse someone out—or verbally abuse someone—or call someone a fool, or worse—you’re in danger of the fire of hell. Well, who hasn’t done that?
Surely many of you listening have driving in Atlanta traffic, for instance.
What we need in order to experience the blessings of Christmas is not to be good—or even to be better than we currently are—however desirable that might be… Because left to our own devices, apart from God’s grace, we can’t be good!
What we need is for someone to be good on our behalf.
And this is precisely what God’s Son Jesus has done for us! He lived the life of perfect obedience to his heavenly Father that we are unable to live for ourselves. And he died the God-forsaken death that we sinners deserved to die. He fulfilled God’s Law for us, and suffered the penalty under the Law that our sins deserved. And when we place our faith in Christ, God counts us as righteous, not on the basis of who we are or what we’ve done, but on the basis of who Christ is and what he’s done!
So… getting back to today’s scripture, Luke 2:13 and 14, the modern translations have it right:
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
Who are those with whom God is pleased? We who are “in Christ,” not having a righteousness of our own that comes from the law, as the apostle Paul says, but a righteousness that comes through faith in Christ.
Many people dislike this exclusivity of Christianity. But please hear me: God’s offer of salvation in Christ will only exclude you if you want it to—which is to say, if you reject this offer—this free gift that God wants to give you. It’s as if this gift is gift-wrapped and sitting under the tree with your name on it. But you still have to receive it!
I hope you will today! In which case, this will be the greatest Christmas you’ve ever known.