Christians around the world are celebrating Christmas this week and preparing our hearts and minds to behold the beauty of Jesus.
Sometimes, however, the celebrations in our hearts are less enthusiastic than all the lights and songs around us. Our hearts do not always explode with fireworks at the joy of the incarnation. Instead, they often flicker like the feeble rays of a single votive candle.
One reason we lack passion for Christmas is that we often fail to truly see God as holy, and our sin as serious. Therefore, we do not have as much joy in Christ’s coming as we could.
I’ve been reading a series of novels by Marilynne Robinson, which includes Gilead, Home, and Lila. Each novel tells a version of the same story through the eyes of a different character. The stories center around two pastors and their families in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, around the middle of the last century. The second book, Home, tells the story from the perspective of Glory, the daughter of the Presbyterian minister Robert Boughton.
In the novel, Glory describes the spiritual complacency of her town and of her father’s preaching about sin.
Complacency was consistent with the customs and manners of Presbyterian Gilead and was therefore assumed to be justified in every case. . . . Even her father’s sermons treated salvation as a thing for which they could be grateful as a body. . . . He did mention sin, but it was rarefied in his understanding of it, a matter of acts and omissions so commonplace that no one could be wholly innocent of them or especially alarmed by them, either — the uncharitable thought, the neglected courtesy. . . . (111)
What kind of sins might have been discussed in these sermons? Apparently, nothing too disturbing. According to Glory, her father was preaching about the sins like failing to call your mother on her birthday, or judging the homeless man on the side of the road, or not returning emails fast enough, or not helping the neighbor kid with her fundraiser.
It seems Reverend Boughton preached about transgressions so innocent and un-alarming as to hardly require salvation at all. We’ve all made mistakes, dropped the ball, and fallen short. These kinds of sins happen, and we’re sorry about it, but we’re not necessarily alarmed by them.
Serious Sin and Joy
Don’t misunderstand me, though. My negative comments about Reverend Boughton’s preaching are not a reflection of my view of the novel or the series, which I’m thoroughly enjoying. Likewise, please do not think I advocate, instead, error in the opposite direction.
My point is simply that Boughton’s light-on-sin-preaching, wherever it does exist, is a shame. It’s a shame not because it’s wimpy preaching (“real preachers preach about sin”). Rather, this type of preaching is unbecoming to ministers because it’s not faithful to the Bible, which is the true measure of Christian preaching — not our personal preferences. In the Bible, sin is certainly an ugly, fearsome, insidious thing, which wars against God and against anyone who believes its lies.
Consider what Jesus says in Mark 7:21–23:
“For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
In short, sin is alarming.
But why is sin alarming? It’s not because the sins Jesus mentions above are “bad” and other sins are “less bad.” All sin is alarming, because all sin is against a holy God. Even the sins some consider petty, or as Glory puts it, “commonplace,” are serious, because they are committed against an infinitely holy and just God.
And if sin against a holy God is serious, then we should despair. Christians, however, need not despair. We need not despair because there is a Savior who took our place, becoming our sin and bearing the full weight of our punishment (Mark 14:36; Romans 3:25–26). It’s this good news that causes the apostle Paul to burst into song in 1 Corinthians 15:55. Because of the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, he writes,
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
The awesome joy of salvation is anchored in the awful seriousness of sin. This theme frequently occurs in our beloved Christmas hymns. Take, for example, the familiar lines in “O Holy Night.” Yes, “long lay the world in sin and error pining,” but this is not the whole story. The verse continues, “the weary world rejoices” when the Savior appears.
The Key to Merry Christmas
It’s the times when I have seen my sin as deeply offensive to God — not as minor mistakes or foibles or idiosyncrasies of my personality — that the story of Jesus has actually been truly good news, and not a cliché.
This kind of self-reflection requires courage. Tim Keller writes,
Are you willing to say, “I am a moral failure. I don’t love God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind. I don’t love my neighbor as myself. And, therefore, I am guilty, and I need forgiveness and pardon”? It takes enormous courage to admit these things, because it means throwing your old self-image out and getting a new one through Jesus Christ. And yet that is the foundation for all the other things that Jesus can bring into your life — all the comfort, all the hope, all the joyful humility, and everything else. (Hidden Christmas, 60–61)
This Christmas may God cause our hearts to explode with real joy over the salvation that comes through Jesus. If that is going to happen, we first need the courage to reckon seriously with the darkness within us. And if we do this, then we’ll truly appreciate that “a light has dawned” among us (Matthew 4:16).