Growing up as a child, getting near to Christmas, I often heard, “If you aren’t good, you won’t get anything for Christmas.” Those are terrifying words to a kid. You start asking yourself, “Would mom and dad really not get me something for Christmas? What if I’m not good enough? How do I know if I broke the rules too many times? What if they’re just using this as a ploy to manipulate me into good behavior?” I’m sure most people don’t ask that last question, but I was a strange kid. And still, it worked. My parents would remind me that my presents depended on being good. So, I’d be good. I’d follow the rules, until I didn’t. Because I’d always forget or make a mistake and do something I wasn’t supposed to, or not do something I was supposed to. Being a kid is hard. Then, my parents would always trot out the same line, “You must not want anything for Christmas.”
I don’t know if your family opens presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, but I’m guessing there are already some kids here who are starting to think, “Alright, if I’m not good, at least I don’t have to worry about losing presents.” And, kids, if you haven’t thought that yet, there you go. Just wait until you get your presents and you can do whatever you want. But, really, I think that shows what’s wrong with that sort of thinking. Please don’t think that I’m criticizing your parenting styles or anything like that. But it’s like this with anything, once the leverage is gone, then it’s gone. I already opened my Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers Megazord. What were my parents going to do? Take it away?
But this idea is pretty normal for human beings. We are used to the idea that if we do a certain thing or act a certain way, we can get something. It’s why you probably have a job, because you work for a paycheck. It’s why you are nice to your pet cat, because otherwise it’ll attack you while your sleeping. It’s why you obey your parents, so you can get Christmas presents. Right? It’s not hard for us to think this way. In fact, it’s so easy, that people most often take that same thought and apply it to God. They assume that God works the same way that human beings do. If you do certain things or act a certain way, then God will reward you or take care of your or love you.
I want you to know that this is such a dangerous way to think about God. There’s two reasons. First, what do you start thinking when you do everything right, but everything still goes wrong? So no matter how you act, or how good you are, it doesn’t seem to matter or change anything. For example, there are Christians around the world that live under much harsher conditions that most of us. There are Christian moms in Africa who think they do everything right, but they still can’t feed their children. There are Christians in the Middle East who think they do everything right, but they’re still hunted down, jailed, and even killed, just because they believe in Jesus. What are they supposed to think? Did they not do enough good things? Did they make mistakes they didn’t know about? Can you see how thinking that God wants to reward you for the good you do is so dangerous? Because it leads us to despair. When we realize that God does not work that way, a person can find themselves lost and unsure what they’re supposed to do about God.
But the second reason is even more important. What are you supposed to think when you realize that you can’t do enough good, or avoid bad, enough to please God? What are you supposed to do when you realize that you are coming up to the end of your life, and you wonder about what is coming next? Is God going to accept you into heaven? Have you done enough? What about those things you shouldn’t have done in high school? What about those harsh words you said to your wife? What about all that secret that you think you have hidden from everyone? Do you see how that can eat at a person? I had an interesting conversation recently. It was with a woman who has been away from church for a while. She confessed that to me. She said it made it feel guilty. But, her biggest worry was that she had missed too much church. She was worried that it had changed things between her and God so much that she couldn’t go to heaven anymore. You could hear her voice tremble just a little as she asked me, “Have I missed going to church too much that it’s ruined my chance to get into heaven?” Do any of those examples sound like you? Have you fallen into this way of thinking—that everything depends on you an the good you have or have not done?
Tonight, I want you to know that God does not work that way. God is not carefully tallying up every good work you do. God is not waiting for you to do something wrong, so that he can take away your presents. He’s not “making a list and checking it twice.” Do you know what you have to do to fix your relationship with God? Do you want to know what it is that you can do to make sure that you get into heaven? Do you want to know that? Nothing. There’s nothing. There is nothing you can do to fix your relationship with God. Not one thing. Because God does not work like us human beings. With God, there is nothing to earn, there is nothing to buy, not even a way to try and balance out the good with the bad.
Think about it like this. A young boy is stranded out in a deep lake, and it’s clear he’s struggling to keep himself afloat. He’s flailing and splashing about. He’s screaming and calling for help. On the shore, his mom is standing there next to a lifeguard. She tells the lifeguard to swim out there. He need to go and serve her child. But, the lifeguard doesn’t move. He just stands there. The mother becomes hysterical. She’s practically yelling into his ear at this point. The lifeguard never moves. He just keeps watching the child struggle. Until, finally, it’s clear that the child can’t get back and is beginning to tire. He’s barely able to keep himself above water. Soon, he’s not able to do much more than float there. Then, the lifeguard springs into action. He sprints into the water. He grabs the boy, and brings him safely back to shore. The mother is relieved, of course, but she still asks the life guard, “Why did you wait so long? Why didn’t you go and get him right away?” The life guard tells her, “As long as he was struggling to save himself, I couldn’t go. If I had, he might have dragged us both under. It wasn’t safe for me to go until he was weak and stopped working to save himself.”
It’s when we stop depending on ourselves, stop trying to save ourselves, and instead recognize our weakness, our helplessness, our sin, then put our faith in Jesus Christ, the grace of God in the flesh, that we find heaven is ours, that we find we are right with God, and that everything has already been done for us. I know it’s easy for us to think that God works the same as us human beings, but he doesn’t. Instead, he works in a way that you and I could never guess. In fact, it’s in a way that is completely unnatural to us. It feels wrong, because it’s an entirely otherworldly concept that does not come out of human logic, but the indiscriminate, reckless, undeserved love of God. It’s grace. “The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all” (Titus 2:11).
That grace, that undeserved love of God, has appeared to us. There’s no better time to talk about this than Christmas, because it’s the same as talking about his appearing. Jesus Christ is God’s grace in the flesh. Down to his very core, Jesus is grace—he loves you even though you aren’t good, he loves you even though you are evil, and he loves you even though you haven’t earned his love. And that’s the point. God does not work the way you and I do. There is no work involved on our part, rather we do nothing, and watch grace do it all. We grace become a man. We watch grace take all our sins, not begrudgingly, or as away to obligate us, but willingly, happily. We watch grace die. God’s grace does all the work so that you and I can have the reward, the victory, the ultimate Christmas present. “Our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ…gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:13-14).
Even now, God is not waiting for you to mess up so that he can take this gift away. Just like there was nothing you could do to earn this gift of eternal life and salvation, there is nothing you can do to keep it. None of this is dependent on you. Jesus Christ has done it all. This is why we celebrate Christmas. It’s why we spend time singing hymns and carols. It’s why parents give gifts to their children, friends gifts to their friends, and so one. Our gifts are just a small way that we reflect the most amazing gift we have ever been given. It’s God’s grace in the flesh. It has appeared to us and given us salvation, and it’s yours for free. There’s nothing you need to do, Jesus has done it all.
But, here’s the last thing. Don’t be confused. Salvation is yours. Heaven is yours. Because Jesus is yours. But, did you notice the last words of that verse? That Jesus made us a people that are “eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:14)? Doesn’t that make sense? I’m not speaking according to human logic. Jesus is not trying to manipulate you into good behavior. He’s not interested in that. Instead, doesn’t it make sense that, because he has forgiven all our sins, because he has given us heaven, because he has done so much for us, and freely, willingly, not asking us to pay the price, but doing it himself—doesn’t it make sense that we respond? That we, too, freely, willingly, give of ourselves. Grace teaches us to say no to the evil things of this world, and to be eager to do good. Not because we are trying to earn something, but because it pleases Jesus. What’s better than that?
Maybe picture it this way. A young child spends all day at his little table, coloring furiously with every crayon in the box. When he’s finished, the entire page is covered in scribbles, mismatched colors, and unrecognizable shapes. The boy looks at it, and then gives it to his mom, who put it into a nice gift bag. The boy goes over to his grandparents house. There, the first thing he does, ignoring the Christmas cookies, the beautiful tree, even grandma, is run over and crawl into grandpa’s lap. He brings along his gift, and he gives it to his grandpa. Grandpa takes the bag and he looks at it and says, “That’s wonderful. It’s just what I wanted.” Giving gifts is a big part of Christmas. God has given you the gift of grace in the flesh. He demands nothing of you in return. The gift is yours. But, embrace that eagerness to do good that Grace has given you. It’s exactly the gift Jesus wants for Christmas. Amen.