“Paul’s One Sentence Christmas”
Christmas 1, December 29, 2013
Paul’s One-Sentence Christmas
Text: Galatians 4:4–7
I’ve got a couple of Christmas wishes. First, I have to admit, sometimes I wish that Aaron Rodgers hadn’t gotten hurt. I wish the credit card bills for this last month would go away. And when you think about all the letters Paul wrote, we could wish, ask, why didn’t Paul write more about Christmas?
I do not know if you are aware of this, but Paul did not give us much on that subject. What Paul Has to Say about Christmas, He Says in One Sentence:
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (vv 4–5).
There you have it: the nativity without bells and tinsel. Paul would have us know that Christmas is more than a feeling. For Paul, Christmas is the incarnation and the virgin birth. It’s redemption, atonement, and someone to live and die in our place, all resulting in our own inclusion into God’s family.
Who knows? Given the beauty of Luke and the drama of Matthew, maybe the early Christians staged Christmas pageants, just like we do. If they did, what part might Paul have played? Being a tough guy, could Paul have imagined himself as Joseph, the guardian and protector of the little Holy Family? As a scholar, would he have fancied himself a Wise Man? Or, given his own dramatic conversion, perhaps he’d be a shepherd surprised by the heavenly host. On second thought, it’s hard to think of Paul as a poor and lowly anything, much less a shepherd. And unlike the Wise Men, he didn’t go out of his way to worship Jesus. It was our Lord who found Paul, and he was walking in the wrong direction. And, unlike Joseph, Paul did nothing to protect Jesus. Quite the opposite.
Deep down, Paul must have known the role he was born to play. When King Herod heard the news of Jesus, Herod was disturbed, and all of Jerusalem with him. And when Paul heard the news of Jesus, he, too, was disturbed. Herod responded by orchestrating the deaths of little boys. Paul responded by breathing murderous threats against all the churches.
Now, we really don’t know much about early Christmas pageants, but we do know Paul actually staged a little Passion play of his own. Back then, his stage name was Saul; his co-star, Stephen. In the first act, Stephen preaches, while Saul incites the teeth-gnashing mob. In the second act, Paul beams with pride as Stephen is dragged out of the city. Finally, Paul holds the coats, so others can throw stones. And Stephen, according to script, can be heard praying, “Do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).
No, Saul didn’t get the chance to snuff out the life of Mary’s Child, but he did the next best thing. Stones thrown at Stephen were aimed at Christ. How would you like that on your conscience? Do you ever wonder what it would be like to be Paul? How often have we woken up in a cold sweat thinking about something we had done? I can see Paul doing that.
What did Paul see when he looked at the nativity? He saw an innocent baby, who would die an innocent man. He saw the face of Stephen. He saw the face of Jesus, and heard Him say, over and over again, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4).
For Paul the sinner, Christmas had to be more than a precious moment or a Hallmark holiday. Santa’s a lot of fun, but when you’ve got blood on your hands, the question of who’s been naughty or nice doesn’t begin to get at the problem.
A real sinner needs more. More than the world, more than Wal-Mart has to offer. More even than what some churches offers. Paul the sinner needed more than Christ as a heartwarming example of how to live a good life. It was much too late for that. What he needed was the dawn of redeeming grace. He didn’t need a theory of the atonement. He needed the atonement. He needed one born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law.
Have you ever noticed folks getting emotional during a Christmas Eve service? It goes with the territory. Candlelight songs bring back memories of loved ones who have passed away or are far away. The songs of children take us back to when our own children were little—back, even, to when we sang in the children’s choir. So it is, along with the eggnog, Christmas serves a generous helping of nostalgia, sad and sweet.
But the nostalgia is made still sadder when garnished with the memories we’d just as soon pass over. When we think of what once was, we are reminded of the times we have harmed others, acted selfishly, and made matters worse. Thinking of what might be, we are reminded that our own little world is a mess, because we made it that way. And there’s no one else to blame. And as we reflect, perhaps we’ll conclude that it hasn’t been such a “Wonderful Life” after all.
What do we do? When confronted with the ghosts of our past, we might choose the path of Scrooge and vow to amend our sinful lives. But what if you’re too late? Scrooge was relieved to find Tiny Tim still alive. Stephen, though, was dead, and Paul’s nightmare was his life. And there was nothing he could do about it.
It’s the kind of thing that can bring a grown man to tears. It’s like David crying out when he wrote, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned” (Ps 51:3–4). It’s like Peter, hearing the rooster crow for a second time and then breaking down in bitter tears at his repeated denial.
It’s the Paul in each of us. The Lord I think so little of; the Lord I shove out of my way; yes, that Lord Jesus came into the world. Not in power, but in the weakness of a child. Not to demand payback, but to make the payment for my sin. Not to breathe murderous threats, but to bring peace on earth, goodwill toward men.
Hear, then, the horn of the prophets and the trumpet of saints. “Come to Bethlehem and see Him whose birth the angels sing” (LSB 368:3). Cry for sorrow, but then weep for joy. Receive with Paul the gift of innocence.
“What child is this, who, laid to rest, On Mary’s lap is sleeping?” (LSB 370:1). The one born of a woman, born under the law, that he might redeem those under the law. “Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, The cross be borne for me, for you” (LSB 370:2).
And that’s good news. And since it is, and since I started the sermon with two wishes, I’d like to end with a third. And along with Paul, I wish you a very Merry Christmas and Happy . . . Feast of Stephen.