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Sermon: It's a Wondrous Life!

Sermon preached Christmas Day, December 25, 2012 at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA.

Christmas Day (Selection III, RCL, All Years) Isaiah. 52:7-10; Psalm. 98; Hebrews 1:1-4; John 1:1-14.

Alleluia.  To us a child is born: Come let us adore him.  Alleluia.

I think we’re all familiar with the classic Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, operator of the Bailey Building and Loan Company.  During some lean times, after his absent-minded uncle Billy misplaces $8000, George just knows he’s bound for jail. Uncertain about what he should do, George goes out into the snowy night. When he reaches a bridge at the end of town after crashing his car into a tree, he considers suicide. Utterly distraught, George begins to wish aloud that he’d never been born. Enter Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class, sent to shepherd Bailey by granting his wish, and to show George how the world would be had he never been born. Through the rest of the film, we learn that George’s life had a significant affect on his family, friends, and community, and that many others would have been worse off without George in their lives. This iconic film helps us realize the influence just one person can have on those around us, whether we recognize it or not.


The movie is based on “The Greatest Gift,” an original short story first written on a Christmas card by Philip Van Doren Stern. So thinking about the world’s greatest gift ever, the incarnation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I began to wonder: What if Jesus had never been born? What if that first Christmas never happened? No visit by Gabriel to Mary. No virgin birth.  No baby wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. No shepherds hearing angels from on high. No journey to the stable in Bethlehem. No wise men following a star from the East to bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Christ the King. What influence has Jesus made on others over the past 2000 years? Specifically, how has Jesus affected our lives? Is life different because Jesus was born?


I believe we all agree the presence of Jesus among us has changed the world. If Jesus hadn’t come, we wouldn’t be here today. The author of the Fourth Gospel seemed to think that Jesus made a significant difference so let’s consider some things you and I would have never known or experienced if Jesus had never been born.


If Jesus had never been born, we wouldn’t know what God is like.


The opening and closing of today’s Gospel declares: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. ... And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”


These verses tell us one of the most amazing truths that has ever happened. God came into this world and became one of us. God came in the flesh as the Son of God. As Rev. Billy Graham have said many times, “If I want to know what God is like, I look at Jesus.”


God’s one and only son, Jesus, became man, taking on the flesh of this world, to be for us the visible representation of the invisible Almighty God. God broke forth into the world to express something to us and among us in a language we all might better comprehend. In him (The Word) God speaks to all of humankind. God so identified with the pains and sorrows of this life that God took action to get up close and personal. God announced: I’m here. With You. And you are not alone


Jesus resolved the faulty images or perceptions that people have about God. In Jesus’ day, non-Jews had rather convoluted views of the Almighty. They didn’t understand there was one Creator God, but rather believed in multiple gods and goddesses who appeared to be more powerful versions of themselves, which meant they were also prideful, deceitful, full of lust and mostly vengeful. It can’t be a good thing when gods or goddesses you worship are morally corrupt. Even today, there are some pretty messed up claims about God.  


Perhaps you have an image of what God is like. God is like a judgmental Father waiting for you to fail so he can punish you. Or God is like Santa Claus who grants your every wish; just pray to God to do all you want as long as you’ve been a good boy or girl. Or God is like a gentle grandmother who loves everyone and doesn’t really care what we do. Or God is like something very remote from us, out there in the edges of the universe somewhere, who really cares very little about us. There are many different images that people have about God.


But the story of the Nativity reminds us that we don’t have to wonder what God is like because the Bible tells us so. Jesus is God come in the flesh. Jesus said himself, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) It’s hard to imagine a defenseless newborn to appreciate that this is the very presence and glory of God come into the world, but that is what the Bible teaches. But what does that tell us about God?


God is near, God is Love, and God is faithful.


Because of Jesus‘ birth, we know that God is not a distant deity, but is rather a God who is near us. Jesus‘ title “Immanuel” means “God with us.” Through Jesus we know that God is right here. God is with us in our worship, when we pray, as we sleep, work, play, whether we are aware of God’s presence or not. Regardless of feeling God’s presence, God is near.


Jesus told his disciples he would be with them always until the end of the ages. Jesus even promised those who follow him that he would not only be present with them, but would live in them through the Holy Spirit. You can’t get any closer than that.    


Some folks think God is out to get them, or to punish them for their faults, however Jesus shows us otherwise. Through Jesus we see God’s incredible love for us. The Son of God was willing to leave the throne of his heavenly kingdom to take on a frail human body, to be born a vulnerable infant into humble beginnings, to grow up and endure temptations, and to face evil and injustices of this world. Why? Because of God’s steadfast, never-failing love. God did not have to come to us, but God did come because there was no other way to reconcile what had become a sinful and broken world back unto God.  


Ultimately, Jesus demonstrated God’s unfailing love when he died as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.   


Through Jesus, we realize God kept the promises made to God’s people in the Old Testament. The people of Israel covenanted with God. God promised to deliver the people and create a kingdom which would never end. God promised to raise up a descendant from King David who would deliver the people from evil, and transform their hearts to love God and one another as God loves us. This person would be a light also to the Gentiles, you and me. Through Jesus we know God kept every promise. Jesus came to share that truth about God. Through Jesus we realize God is nearer that we can imagine, and that God is full of steadfast faithfulness and love

Our Gospel today sheds another truth: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” If Jesus had not been born into this world, we would never be able to become children of God and to have a personal relationship with him.


God came down to dwell among us as one of us so that we also might become children of God. Ephesians 1:3-7 tells us: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing ..., just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will ... In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.”


God’s design from the very beginning of time was to come as the Son of God to earth so that we might become part of God’s family, a family united together forever. But you could wonder: What’s the big deal with becoming part of God’s family?


God isn’t interested in religion as in following a set of rules or laws. God’s interest in being in relationship: God with us and us with God. Being a part of God’s family calls for relationship like a parent to a child. You can practice your religion, come to church, read scripture, sing praises to God, and pray, but if there is no relationship between you and God, what’s the point? Likewise, your shortcoming and failures do not keep you from being in relationship with God, because in Jesus Christ we find forgiveness and grace. Sometimes unlike our earthly families, God’s family is one of unconditional love.


But John’s Gospel reminds us, we do not automatically become a part of God’s family.  We must receive God’s gift of the Son, Jesus. For as we all busily wrap gifts for one another, God wrapped God’s gift to us. In flesh. In swaddling clothes. We all have exchanged and unwrapped gifts together; we know gifts are useless until we open and receive them. Only those who extend their hands and open their hearts to the gift of Jesus become a part of God’s family


If Jesus had not been born, we would never experience the Light of Life. Our Gospel says, “In him was life, and the life was the light of the all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  


Light as an image of salvation is in the Jewish Bible also. Just last night in Christmas Eve, we heard from the great prophet Isaiah, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” (9:2) Also, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth and thing darkness the peoples: but the Lord will arise upon you, and God’s glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.’ (60:13)


Light shining in the darkness draws our attention. In the midst of darkness, light has a way of giving hope. John’s Gospel tells us Jesus is that Light. The darkness which surrounds the Light is evil, sin, hatred, violence, poverty, brokenness, disease, and death; all things which are counter to the original plan of God for this world. Jesus came to bring light to this darkness, to bring hope in hopelessness. How does Jesus shed this light upon our darkness? The light of Christ is life. The ray of hope we find in Jesus Christ is God’s promise of life; abundant life now and eternal life with God.


What is this abundant living that Jesus offers? It means we experience God’s gift of love, joy, and peace because of God’s gift in Jesus. These are gifts which the world cannot give, but only God the Father can offer through his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. This Light is not able to be extinguished or snuffed out by the darkness that surrounds it. No amount of evil can overcome the abundant grace God wants to give us.


The greatest gift is the promise of eternal life in him.


“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”


Because of God’s love and faithfulness, we know when we become members in God’s family, we will live eternally with God. Our life in this world is the preliminary round, the warm-up for eternity, and God hopes we will spend eternity in and with God. But the choice is ours here and now to receive God’s gift in the Son Jesus Christ. Will you unwrap this gift and receive it?


Unlike George Bailey, who didn’t understand the impact he had on others until Clarence showed him, I believe Jesus knew the difference his life would make on us. That’s why he left the glory of heaven for the darkness of this world. That’s why Christ was born into this flesh and died on that cross for our sins. Jesus did all this because of the love and faithfulness of God for you and for me


What difference has the birth of Jesus made on your life? If the first Christmas never happened, would you be who you are today? Fortunately for us, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, God came near, and showed unfailing love and faithfulness toward us so we could become children of God to experience the light of abundant life and look forward to the promise of everlasting life. I hope you see just what Jesus has done for all of us. I hope you receive God’s gift of adoption into God’s family and unwrap that gift of new life through Christ Jesus, our Lord. It’s a wonderful life indeed, and we are glad for it!


Alleluia.  To us a child is born: Come let us adore him.  Alleluia.