1 Timothy 1:12–17
The message of Christmas for you from Christ this morning is that what is good and precious in your life need never be lost, and what is evil and undesirable in your life can be changed.
The Message of Christmas for You
The coming of the eternal Son of God into the world as the God-Man, Jesus Christ, is a fact of history. But thousands of Americans fill out Gallup Poll religious surveys that they believe this fact but then live just like everybody else. They have the same anxieties that good things will be lost and the same frustrations that crummy things can't be changed. Evidently there is not much power in giving right answers on religious surveys about historical facts.
That's because the coming of the Son of God into the world is so much more than a historical fact. It was a message of hope sent by God to teenagers and single parents and crabby husbands and sullen wives and overweight women and impotent men and retarded neighbors and homosexuals and preachers and lovers and you. And since the Son of God lived, died, rose, reigns, and is coming again, God's message through him is more than a historical fact. It is a Christmas gift to you this morning, December 25, 1983, from the voice of the living God. Thus says the Lord: the meaning of Christmas is that what is good and precious in your life need never be lost, and what is evil and undesirable in your life can be changed. The fears that the few good things that make you happy are slipping through your fingers, and the frustrations that the bad things you hate about yourself or your situation can't be changed—these fears and these frustrations are what Christmas came to destroy. It is God's message of hope this morning that what is good need never be lost and what is bad can be changed.
What Is Good and Precious Need Never Be Lost
There are many in our church family who because of age or sickness will inevitably ask themselves the question today: "Is this my last Christmas?" Life is good and precious and we don't want to lose it. We can talk all we want about the good things of life, but if we don't have life, we don't have anything. "What does it profit if you gain the whole world and lose your life?" O, how precious is our life. If you don't feel it now, wait till you get very sick. Then you will know why Hezekiah wept bitterly with his terminal illness and pled for added years (2 Kings 20:1–7). The message of Christmas to you who see your death on the horizon is that you need never lose your life. It is good to live. Your life is precious and can be saved.
Last Wednesday was the fifteenth anniversary of my marriage to Noël. One of the things I said to Noël as I took her in my arms Wednesday evening was, "I would sure hate to lose you." And we sat quietly for a while letting that thought intensify our love for each other. We like to say with the Puritans, "It was no accident but a 'gracious Providence' when we fell in love in 1966." But we know very well that sooner or later one of us will be taken away. We also recall that our Lord said, "In the resurrection there is neither marriage nor giving in marriage" (Matthew 22:30). Must I, then, live in fear that I will lose Noël? The message of Christmas for me on my anniversary is that I need never lose her—ever! Christmas is God's guarantee to his children that whatever the new age may bring, it will not bring the annihilation of anything good.
The message of God to you this Christmas morning is that whatever is good and precious in your life need never be lost. No beauty, no pleasure, no love, no skill that is good and precious need vanish forever from you. It can all be saved. The Christmas message is that even when you feel them slipping between your fingers, God can catch them all and restore them to you again. Not one of you needs to live in fear or anxiety that what is good and precious in your life will be lost. "The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save it for you, not to destroy it."
Whatever Is Evil and Undesirable Can Be Changed
But not only that, the message of Christmas is that whatever is evil and undesirable in your life can be changed. Wherever people say about their bad habits, "That's just the way I am; you'll have to get used to it," the message of Christmas has been rejected. It's as though the AAA truck pulls up to your dead car and you say, "Ah, it's no use, that's just the way this car is." And you don't even let him hook up his cables. The message of Christmas is the jumper cable between God and your life. And the power that flows is the power to change.
Do You Really Want Change?
Before anyone says, "Oh, I've tried religion and it didn't help," let me ask this: How many of you have ever fasted for three days? Two days? One day? Have you taken the Word of God, asked for a vacation day, gone away by yourself Friday through Sunday, and saturated your mind with holiness and poured our your soul in longing to the Lord for change? Have you gathered around yourself two or three spiritual brothers or sisters, shared with them the habit you want to break, sought their daily earnest prayer, and stood yourself accountable to them? If not, then don't say religion doesn't work.
Moses fasted forty days. Elijah fasted forty days. Jesus fasted forty days and spent whole nights in prayer. When was the last time you wanted any change in your life bad enough to spend one whole day in prayer and fasting seeking it from the Lord, not to mention three days like Paul (Acts 9:9), or three weeks like Daniel (Daniel 10:2, 3), or forty days like Moses? The problem with most of us is not that the Christmas message is powerless, but that we don't really want to be changed. "You will seek me and find me (says the Lord, in Jeremiah 29:13) when you seek me with all your heart." When you want with all your heart to rid yourself of what is evil and undesirable, God will give you the Christmas gift of change.
God could give the gift of change apart from the struggle of prayer. But then we would never appreciate it as we ought. If he didn't usually cause our prayers to mount up with fervency and earnestness before he changed us, then we would be like people who are fed before we are really hungry. The Christmas dinner of God's transformation would go down on a full stomach. There would not be so many oohs and ahs to his glory.
What's more, when God gives the gift of change, it is always pure. But our motives for change, even the best change, are not usually pure at first. Only when we begin to seek him earnestly and saturate our minds with large doses of his pure Word and test our affections through self-denial, do our motives become pure and ready to receive the pure Christmas gift of change.
That's Just the Way I Am?
The message of Christmas is that what is evil and undesirable in your life can be changed. "The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into to the world to save you from bondage to sin." Nobody knows the month Jesus was born, but it is a happy tradition that puts Christmas the week before New Year's Day, because New Year's is when we resolve to change things in our lives, and Christmas is God's message that change is his gift. Every page of the New Testament has the Christmas title: these things are written that you might change. As 1983 comes to an end and we look back on our lives, the good news of Christmas is that we can change.
John puts it like this in 1 John 3:8–9, "If you keep on sinning, it shows that you belong to Satan . . . But the Son of God came to destroy these works of the devil. The person who has been born into God's family does not make a practice of sinning, because now God's life is in him" (L.B.). Christ Jesus came into the world to save us from the bondage to sin and Satan. By the power of Christ you can change. We are not by nature beautiful people. But we have an incomparably beautiful Savior who came into the world to change us into his likeness (Romans 8:29). Preserving the good works of grace in our lives and pressing on to change the remaining evil by grace is the lifelong vocation of every Christian. People who do not want to change are either perfect or disobedient. And since perfection awaits the day of Christ's second coming, self-satisfaction is always disobedience.
The message of Christmas is that what is evil and undesirable in your life can be changed. A critical spirit can be changed. Alcoholism can be changed. Irritability can be changed. Harshness and ingratitude can be changed. Laziness and overeating and masturbation and nagging can be changed. The habits of not tithing and excessive TV watching and gambling can be changed. The fear of talking to others and of having guests over to your house can be changed. The lack of appreciation for great music and great books can be changed. Indifference to beauty can be changed. And your disposition to remind somebody else to take this sermon to heart can be changed. Christ Jesus came into the world to save us from fatalism. He came to stop people from saying, "That's just the way I am."
Christ's Gymnasium of Godliness
I wish I could say something to help you feel with me the thrill of accepting the challenge of breaking bad habits in 1984. Isn't it strange that physical and intellectual challenges capture our minds but spiritual challenges don't, even though they are by far the most important. The challenge to run ten miles, or have an undefeated season, or make a 4.0 average in college, or become vice-president of the firm may call forth amazing effort and discipline. But offer the same people the challenge of changing their habits of prayerlessness or excessive anger or insensitivity at home or coolness in worship or hesitancy in witnessing or addiction to second helpings, and they will likely content themselves with a brief, "God help me do better," before they go off to sleep exhausted from all the other challenges of life.
But the meaning of Christmas is that Christ came into the world to open a new gymnasium for godliness. And he said in 1 Timothy 4:8, "Bodily exercise is of some value, but working out in the gymnasium of godliness holds promise for the present life and the life to come." If it feels good to run ten miles and lose five pounds, it feels a hundred times as good to conquer Satan by the power of Christ and break free from some unloving bent in our personality. God's Christmas card to you this year is a gift certificate for a personally directed fitness program in his Son's gymnasium that can knock off more fat from the sinful sides of your personality than you ever dreamed possible.
Christ's Mercy and Power for All Sinners
1 Timothy 1:15 is a great summary statement of Christmas good news: "The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners." His humble birth, obedient life, substitutionary death, and powerful resurrection covers the sins of his people and saves us from the loss of any good and precious thing and from the bondage of any evil and undesirable thing.
And notice the context of this great saying. It's Paul's own personal testimony of how he had been changed. Verse 13: "I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted Christ." Why did Christ choose the chief persecutor of the church to become the chief missionary of the church? The answer to that question is given very clearly in verse 16: he did it so that this morning you would grasp the message of Christmas—that no one who trusts Christ is beyond the reach of change. "I received mercy for this reason, that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life." Christ picked the chief of sinners to demonstrate to you today what his mercy and power can do in your life. Don't belittle the mercy of God by saying that you cannot be changed!
When Paul calls the power of Christ which changed him from great sinner to great apostle—when he calls this power "mercy," he exalts not himself but the Savior. The Christmas gift of change is always a gift, and never a wage. It can never be boasted in. It can be sought after the way a helpless, hungry man seeks food; and it can be accepted by faith. But it can never be earned. And so none of the changes God gives can be the basis of pride. The more like Christ you become, the more you exalt Christ and not yourself.
What God did on the first Christmas and what he does in forgiving and changing people today he did and does in utterly free, sovereign mercy, so that all his people will end the paragraphs of their lives with the words like verse 17: "To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen." We are not saved from sin and changed into righteousness for the sake of pride but for the sake of praise. And when God's work on us is done and we stand perfected before Christ in the last day, we will not exult in our worth but will sing with millions of angels: "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and honor and glory and blessing." Praise to you, O Lord. Amen.