What Christmas is Really All About

A Christmas Sermon from Titus 2:11-14; 3:3-7

We are all familiar with the Christmas movie “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” Well, there has been an outbreak of real Grinches who have been stealing Christmas right out of the Church!

I read some time ago[1] that “one upon a time,” a congregation in Vancouver that was gathered for a special Thursday evening service, and a thief crept in and made off with teddy bears intended for poor kids and dying grown-ups. Volunteers at the church were stunned to discover more than 50 brand new teddy bears had been stolen. The lady who organized the teddy bear drive said the theft was discovered Friday.

“Nothing surprises me now,” said the volunteer. “I guess I’ve been around too long.”

Other thefts from the church have included a CD and tape player from the children’s area and even a silver communion plate. “All the downtown churches are the same,” she added. “You can’t leave anything unattended.”

The teddy bears were to be distributed to Downtown Eastside kids, like those at the Crabtree Corner Daycare, and patients in St. Paul’s Hospital.

“It’s just like the Grinch who stole Christmas,” said the volunteer. “I’m hoping there will be a Whoville kind of ending.”

There are a lot of Grinches around this time of year, that’s for sure.  I’ve talked to a number of people who tell me, “With all of the commercialization around today, something seems missing from Christmas.”  Many are saying, “Let’s do away with it all.  The world has so polluted the season that it cannot be recovered.”

I am not so sure about that.  But, I do think the volunteer from the congregation in Vancouver had a point when she said, “You can’t leave anything unattended.”  It just may be that the Church has unwittingly left Christmas unattended, while the Grinches of the world have crept in and stolen the true meaning of Christmas right out from under our tree.

Now, Dr. Seuss’ Grinch is a fictitious children’s figure in a long line of fictitious evil characters.  But behind such characters is a reality.  The Bible says there is an evil angel, a fallen angel named Satan.  Satan is not a cartoon.  The one whom our Lord called the father of lies, is an accuser of the saints.  He wants to stop lost souls from hearing about new life in Jesus Christ.  He wants to steal faith away from those who have it.  What better way to do it than by blurring the great message of this season: that God has so loved the world that He sent His only Son into the world that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.

Redeeming Christmas

In one of our pastorates, we were blessed to have lived near Hunter Army Air Field, which is the home of the Army Rangers. These courageous men are ready to rapidly deploy anywhere around the world to conduct special exercises: to go behind the lines, to defeat the enemy and take their ground, to liberate the oppressed, and to restore order.

Well, this Christmas I want to conduct an exercise in redemption: by looking at God’s Word, I want to restore Christmas, to recover a Biblical understanding of the true meaning of Christmas. Without the teddy bears in Vancouver, little children will lose some tenderness and joy; but without the true meaning of Christmas, little boys and girls as well as big boys and girls will miss the Christ of Christmas and will be in danger of missing fulfillment and meaning in life and of losing eternal life.

I draw your attention not to the traditional Christmas narratives from the Gospels, but to a deep theological statement made by the Apostle Paul to a fledgling pastor on the island of Crete named Titus.

As Paul, the founder of the church at Crete, equipped Titus to deal with the pastoral duties necessary to organize the Church there, he doesn’t write a “how to” manual.  Instead, Paul taught Titus to get the Grinches out of Crete by drawing the hearts and minds of the Cretans to the central message of the advent of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I invite you to join me in for a few moments to recover Christmas, to get the Grinches out, to redeem the true meaning of Christmas from this little epistle of Paul to Titus.

I begin the recovery with a question:

What is Christmas really all about?

Is it only about giving and receiving presents? You know that’s not so.

Is it only about conjuring up a spirit of generosity and goodwill toward others?  No.  These are the happy by products, but are not the true meaning of Christmas.

“I know,” someone says.  “Christmas is all about the Nativity!  It’s all about the Christmas story: the angels, Mary and Joseph, shepherds keeping watch, the Star of Bethlehem, and the little drummer boy!”

Well, almost.  Yes, it’s about the Story of Christmas.  But, the narrative of that first Christmas is really just the setting for what is the true meaning of Christmas.

The Bible, in Titus 2 and 3, teaches us that…

1.      Christmas is all About a Cradle

The Cradle of Christ was a manger—a rough-hewn feed trough for animals.  But, that ignoble thing was transformed from an ordinary to a sacred use, because the manger of Bethlehem cradled the Almighty of Glory.  More than that, the manger held—on that remarkable night—the very personification of God’s grace.  That is who Jesus is. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form  (Col. 2:9). He is the fullness of God’s grace:  His unconditional favor toward those who turn from their sin and turn to Him by faith.

Paul told Titus to found his church, to drive away false teachers, by focusing on the true meaning of our faith:

“For the grace of God has appeared…”

And, without a doubt, Christmas is all about a cradle:  it’s all about the coming of God’s grace, His mercy to a world of sinners.

2.      Christmas Is All About a Crime

Now this might seem startling.  But as sure as St. Andrews Church in Vancouver was the scene of a crime one Thursday night, and even more surprising, perhaps, is that Christmas is all about a crime.

What is it?  It is the crime of sinful men in rejecting Christ.  It is the crime of the creation being in a perpetual state of rebellion against the Creator.

So, Paul announces:

“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions” (Titus 2:11).

And Paul writes:

“For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another” (Titus 3:3).

The birth of Jesus Christ came as a result of a massive rebellion of man against God.

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).

Christ didn’t come to squash the rebellion like a riot squad, but to change the hearts of the criminals. Christ came to die for us while we were yet sinners.  This is what Christmas is really all about: we are sinners and Christ is a Savior.  We can’t work our way to heaven, for if we could, God would not have sent His Son to die for our sins.

And make no mistake every sin against God will be dealt with. This leads us to another consideration:

3.      Christmas Is All About a Cross

“He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity”

Have you ever lied?  Cheated?  Were unkind toward another?  Committed adultery?  Committed treason against God by unbelief?  Paul told Titus to hammer down the central truth that Christ came to offer Himself as a sacrifice for sin.

The eternally important matter before us this Christmas (and every single day of our lives) is this: we are sinners who have broken God’s eternal laws and are by nature rebels against His grace. You will have to pay for those sins or you will put your sins on God’s Plan for dealing with them: by trusting in Jesus Christ who came to die for the sins of His people.

This is the invitation before you.  This is what Christmas is really all about.

The cute little babe of Bethlehem had a shadow cast over him the moment He came into this world: the shadow of a cross.  He came to die.  He came to offer Himself as a ransom for sin, to release sinners from the bondage of sin.

I am glad to say that the Bible teaches that Jesus did not stay on that cross.  It would be ordered by the very decree of Almighty God that Jesus should not only die, and go the grave, but also rise from the dead and be seen in His resurrected form by hundreds of eyewitnesses, ascend into heaven, and take His rightful place as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

So, we must say:

4.      Christmas Is All About a Crown

Paul taught as much in this very passage when he wrote:

“While we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” (Titus 2:13 NRSV).

Jesus is referred to by Paul as “our Great God and Savior.” He came in a cradle and was wrapped in swaddling clothes, but He was destined to wear a crown.

Jesus is the crown prince of heaven and the eternal Son of God.  When He left heaven to take on human flesh and identify with us, He didn’t stop being God.  He was God, even though He was man.  In releasing His people from sin, in completing His assignment, and ascending into heaven, He again wore the celestial crown of divine sovereignty and authority.

Now the practical effect of that in one’s life is to redeem us out of our individual sins, which promote loneliness and private sorrow, into a family of forgiven people.  The Babe in the manger was then and will always be a threat to Herod-like kingdom building, to isolated living.

5.      Christmas Is All About Communion

We celebrate His death in Holy Communion.  The Lord’s Supper is, in fact, an act of remembering the act of our salvation, but it is also an act signifying that in believing in Him we have come together.

Paul would write Titus to emphasize our lives together in Jesus:

“This Spirit He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:6).

“So that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:7).

You wouldn’t think about it at first glance, Jesus was born to a remote village of a third rate Roman occupied country.  But, Christmas was and remains all about Communion:  the Communion of Saints.

At the heart of Christmas is that God was redeeming a people for Himself.  Our existence as an assembly of believers is due to the fact that God wanted fellowship with His creation.

But how does that happen?  How do people come into Communion with God?  Is it through some religious ceremony? No, it cannot be, for it was devotion to religion rather than devotion to God that caused men to turn against Christ.

Paul sums up how we get communion with God:

“He saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3.5-6).

The Bible says that Jesus came to destroy the works of Satan and to bring reconciliation between God and man.  He sent the Holy Spirit into the world to accomplish and apply all that Christ did for us in His life and His death and His resurrection. The Holy Spirit may be dealing with you, urging you in your heart right now to get it right about Christmas, to see that your works are of no account before God, to see that His mercy and grace have appeared in Jesus Christ, and to turn to Him alone as your Lord and Savior.  You may need to see me about the condition of your souls.  Maybe you should repent and be baptized for the remission of your sins.

All of us should see that God has saved us from ourselves through the coming of Jesus Christ and in our salvation we are grafted into His family as sons and daughters.

On Christmas morning we will be in our homes and enjoying our families, but for now it is good that we remember that we are a part of God’s family.  There is no better place to be on Christmas Eve than gathered in the House of God to remember our Savior who has delivered us from ourselves and brought us into Communion with Him and with each other.

6.      A ‘Whoville’ Kind of Ending

Recently I read about a young woman who grew burdened by Christmas.  As I read her dilemma, how to balance the rush of shopping and holiday parties with the pastoral scene of shepherds watching their flocks by night, I thought to myself that here is a woman whose Christmas had definitely been stolen.  But I read on and learned that she deliberately, one Christmas, determined to approach the Christmas story in a fresh way:  she decided to pray and ask God to tell it to her personally.  So she read, and then silently put down the Scriptures and prayed them back to God.  She testified to the fact, that for the first time she understood that Christ came to a manger for her and for others like her.  That night, as she moved beyond the religious scenes and the sentimental embellishments of Christmas, she gave her life for the first time to the real Christ of Christmas.

This is what each of us is called to do.  To see that behind the manger scene (and certainly beyond the cellophane wrappers of a secularized season) there is the great epic story of God’s love being told—and told personally to you.

The volunteer at the church in Vancouver, whose teddy bears for children were stolen, was reported to have said:

“I’m hoping there will be a Whoville kind of ending.”

She hoped that like Dr. Seuss’ little tale, the Grinch who stole the teddy bears would be changed; would return all of the gifts to their little village of Whoville, and all of the formerly sad Whovillians, would sing a lovely carol around the village Christmas tree.

In Titus 3:7, St. Paul writes that for those who receive Christ in this way, they become “heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

When we receive the Christ of the Scriptures into our lives, the Christ who came in a cradle, who came because of our crimes, who came to bear those crimes on a cross, and be raised from the dead to wear a crown, the Christ who came that we might have Communion with God and, for the first time, with each other, when we receive Him, the true meaning of Christmas is sealed to our souls.  It is then that Grinches are transformed into saints, that Christ is exalted as Lord in our lives, and that we sing as men and women and boys and girls who have found the greatest gift in the world.

And the good news of Jesus is that when you receive Him into your life, no one or no thing can ever steal that gift away.

Glory to God in the highest! That is what Christmas is really all about!

[1] This came from my personal illustration files. No reference point or date was given (in the oral source) for the story so I kept the illustration in more of a “once upon a time” mode, which intends to signify the possible dubious origins of the story. Yet the storyteller had such real place names in Vancouver that it defies fairy tale status! Yet without exact sourcing, I am always reluctant to guarantee authenticity. In such times, “once upon a time” covers a multitude of sins!


About Michael A. Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D., MPA (University of Wales; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author.
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