“Hope Until Then”
December 24, 2009 - Christmas Eve
Travis died early this month. No, not a friend or a church member, but Travis… the Trout. He’s been a Christmas fixture at our house for about ten years, a plastic novelty fish with a Santa hat. He would flap his tail, open his mouth and sing “Jingle Bells” and “Up on the Rooftop.” But this year he died and new batteries would not revive him. My wife Beth didn’t shed any tears at all, but the rest of the family has missed Travis.
Yet a replacement for Travis has appeared. Just yesterday our friend Eric made me tear open an early Christmas gift to discover inside another musical fish, whom we promptly named “Bobby the Bass.” Rather appropriately for us right now, he sings Bobby Ferrin’s, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” and also the Talking Heads’ “Take Me to the River,” all while happily flapping his tail. So with Bobby by my side I’m now ready to talk to you tonight about hope.
Verse 13 of our text from Titus says that we are waiting for “the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” The celebration of Christmas is full of all sorts of hopes, but the essential one is to hope in Jesus. Like all the decorations hung on a Christmas tree, all our other hopes hang upon our hope in Him.
We are celebrating tonight because that hope in and for Jesus has already been in part fulfilled. Verse 11 tells us that “the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.” Through the baby in the stable, God’s grace has been shown to us. The Bible says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” His grace offers salvation to anyone who will receive it. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, grace was born into our world, and so was hope.
Grace is God’s recognition that you and I, along with the rest of the human race, are pretty hopeless creatures. As much as we would like to be nice people, to do good things, to make our world a beautiful, peaceful place, we keep fouling it up. Many times we are just plain mean or lazy or selfish. We yell at a neighbor or leave a mess for someone else to clean up or spend a lot on ourselves without sharing. And all the problems of the world are really just the same kind of thing on a bigger scale. On our own, we’re hopeless.
The coming of Jesus is the good news that no one has to remain hopeless. We do not have to remain hopelessly on our own, lost and messed up and failing over and over. When the angel appeared in the sky over a sheep pasture in Israel, he brought “good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. Unto you is born this day… a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” In the form of a newborn infant, God sent grace and hope to everyone. And that changes everything.
Grace is the blessed hope that change is possible, because, says verse 12, grace teaches us to say “No.” How many times have you and I said, “I just can’t say ‘No,’” whether it’s to a half a dozen Christmas cookies too many or to an expensive pleasure we can’t really afford or to an opportunity to exact a little pain from someone who’s hurt us? On our own, by ourselves, we just cannot say “No” to all those ways we go wrong and damage our own lives and the lives of others. Only grace teaches us to say “No,” and turn away from the old, messed up way of living to embrace something better.
The invitation to “self-controlled, upright and godly lives,” which finishes out verse 12 seems like a pretty bland and uptight theme for Christmas Eve. But pause and think about what a gift it would be to have lives like that rather than the alternative of ungodliness and unbridled passion. What a gift it would be to have control of one’s behavior, to be able to know in your heart that you’ve done what’s right, to be able stand before the Lord with a clear conscience. The gift of Christ’s grace helps us make that change.
Growing up, one of the items I expected to find in my stocking every Christmas was a new toothbrush. It was certainly not my favorite gift, a pretty bland present. I would pull it out, note that it was blue, and set it aside. Yet it made a difference. Christmas evening, before I went to bed, I pulled the old brush, with its worn, flattened bristles, out of the little rack in the bathroom and threw it in the trash. Then I tore the cellophane off, opened the little box and got to work with a fresh, straight replacement. I was sure my teeth felt cleaner when I finished, rinsed off my new brush and dropped it fresh into its slot.
The baby born two millennia ago was the Christmas gift of a replacement life. Jesus grew into a fresh, straight, new kind of human being. Tempted, just like you and I are, He said “No” to all the life and joy destroying choices you and I have made. Instead, He formed in Himself just the kind of life we’ve always wanted. Jesus Christ brought into the world and, if we let Him, into our lives, a perfect humanity. His life is God’s gracious replacement for the flat, worn out, broken messes we’ve made of ourselves. By giving us the life of Jesus, God makes it possible for us to say “No” to all that is old and awful in ourselves, and to say “Yes” to a brand new life in Him.
Still, if all we have is Christmas, why bother with it? Both my wife’s parents had dentures. Beth grew up fully expecting to lose all her teeth by the time she was forty or so. So she had little motivation for dental care, for experiencing even the bland little pleasure I got from a new toothbrush. Why go to the trouble if nothing comes of it in the long run, if you’re going to end up toothless anyway? But with a little hope for your teeth, toothbrushes are just a little more exciting, because they make a real difference.
You we might wonder why it makes sense to say “No” to any of life’s pleasures or to any of its sins, if we all end up the same way, not only toothless, but tired and old and dying? Why give up the satisfaction of revenge, the sweetness of illicit love, the pleasure of getting ahead at someone else’s expense, unless giving them up really makes a difference in the end? That’s why, here at Christmas, Titus reminds us that Jesus didn’t just appear once. He will appear again. We receive the grace of a new way of life as “we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Christmas is one side of a pair of holy bookends which embrace and support our lives. Because Jesus came the first time, you and I live in an age of grace and new life. Because He is coming again, we have the hope of that new life made complete and perfect when He returns to us. We spend a lot of effort and time looking forward to Christmas, but it is Christmas which allows to look forward to eternity, when He comes again.
Yet in the meantime, we have these old, worn-down, ruined selves awaiting change, awaiting replacement. Sometimes we can feel as dead inside as poor Travis there, feel like we just can’t sing or rejoice anymore. And so Christmas comes around to remind us of the grace we have right now, the grace that means we can always begin again, always find renewal and new life, always have hope.
Verse 14 begins by telling us Jesus is the one “who gave himself for us.” Times have changed, but day after tomorrow the stores will be open and people will be returning presents they didn’t like or need or want for something better, or using gift cards to get actual gifts. You may go yourself to stand in a long line to exchange a blouse that doesn’t fit or to purchase a camera marked down for after-Christmas sale. Yet the greatest exchange of gifts that’s ever been happened on the first Christmas.
Our Savior exchanged His life for ours. He gave up the glory and comfort of heaven to take up our weak and painful existence. He put His own pleasure and benefit down on the counter and picked up your sorrow and suffering. Jesus gave up His life in order to redeem yours. Becoming human, God exchanged His own eternal, perfect and joyful life for the short, sinful and often sad life we experience, so that you and I may exchange our troubled lives for His blessed and holy one.
Christmas is an opportunity for everyone—because God’s grace offers salvation to everyone—an opportunity for a priceless exchange. Jesus is exchanging lives with you. Give Him your life and He will give you His. Carry in all that broken, defective, cheap, gaudy, plastic merchandise you thought was real living and place it all on the counter before Him. Ask Him for something better. He will give it to you. He already has. It is the perfect life of His own Son, begun at Christmas.
We have hope, because that’s the purpose of Christmas. Travis singing “Jingle Bells” gives way to Bobby singing, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” And in Christ, it’s not just a silly pop song, it’s the truth. God sent His Son to us to bring us the real and true hope of a new and better day to come.
Living in that hope makes a difference. It makes us different. It makes us want to brush our teeth. It makes want to be the new people that Christ came to make us. As verse 14 says, He gave Himself “to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”
Christmas can bring out the best in people. You find people a little more kind, a little more patient, a little more generous with those in need. That’s what God meant Christmas to do, to change us, not in a temporary, sentimental sort of way, but forever. God’s gift of Jesus is a lasting exchange of His life for our lives, raising us up into a life much greater than we had before. The birth of God’s Son is a miracle which gives us the hope of being far more, far better than we are now.
It’s happening. Sometimes I’m not as sure as I’d like to be that it’s happening in me, but I believe it because I see it happening in many of you, “people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” I’ve been incredibly blessed to watch as some of you teamed with other Christians and people of good will to shelter those who have no homes. I often get to observe one of you here put a comforting arm around somebody who’s hurting. I’ve been the recipient myself of your kindnesses and love. By the grace of Jesus Christ, God is truly making you into “people who are his very own, eager to do good.”
Yet remember that Christmas is not what we do, no matter how good. It’s grace. It’s a gift. Christmas is God’s gift to tired, confused, imperfect people who by themselves are always getting life wrong. It’s only by the grace that was born in Bethlehem that there’s any hope for us to change. It’s by that grace of Jesus who was born and died and rose again that we have the hope of being something new.
I’m really glad to have Bobby here to remind me of the hope we have through grace. I’m going to listen to him sing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” several times this Christmas. But right now I want to remember and sing a better song about why Bobby’s tune is actually good advice. I want to light a candle and sing,
Silent night! Holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light,
Radiant beams from thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth.
As Christmas morning breaks in a few minutes, may it be the dawn of redeeming, renewing, life-changing grace and hope for you.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj