The holiday season is notoriously busy. But there are often quiet moments at Christmas to slow our lives down for worship. The classic Nativity figurines and all the classic Nativity paintings capture this divine silence. In the presence of the infant God-man, our response is speechless adoration.
As quickly as the Christmas season arrives, however, the quiet moment passes away for another year. Trees and decorations and lights are taken down, and the silent night is exchanged for the hectic new year. It was during those post-holiday transitions that Francis Schaeffer began wondering about the shepherds who ran to see the Christ child (Luke 2:8–21). What did they go back to? How were they changed?
The shepherds returned to their flocks and homes, and back to their everyday lives. But in the moments or days of beholding Christ, these shepherds were changed. These men became sharing men (Luke 2:17–18). These men became worshipping men (Luke 2:20). And for their close encounter with great joy, these men certainly must have become affectionate men, too (Luke 2:10–11).
But what has happened to us?
Through the gift of God’s revelation in Scripture, we are in the shepherd’s shoes (or sandals). We have once again celebrated the birth of the Christ child, and we have seen the glory of his coming. “At Christmastime, we set up our Christmas trees and toy trains,” Schaeffer writes. “We may even walk along singing carols or we may preach a sermon, but these bits and pieces are barren if we are thinking only of them or even thinking only of being in Heaven, and are not stopping to ask ourselves, ‘What difference does it make in my life now?’”1 The answers to this blunt question became chapter 11 of his book No Little People.
Facing Old Sins
In the chapter, Schaeffer considers all of the potentially life-altering ways a sight of the Christ child would have evoked in the lives of these shepherds. The arrival of the Christ would have shaken them to the core. Imagine the shepherds going back to their lives. Would they resume the same patterns of sin?
Here is how Schaeffer reflects on it:
Since the shepherds were much like each one of us, they faced a round of old sins when they returned to life as usual. In the light of their experience of looking at the face of the baby Jesus, in the light of their understanding of that situation, can we imagine them continuing to live in sin as though it were normal, without being sorry and having real repentance? I think not. I would suggest that the shepherds, full of the reality of what they had seen in the heavens and in the manger, would have been sorry for their past sins and even more if they sinned again.2
Christmas and Sanctification
At Desiring God we talked a lot about sanctification and personal holiness in 2012. Sanctification is a God-powered enactment of a divine miracle. Sanctification is a miracle rooted in our union with Christ, and in him we find our only hope for pruning off old sins.
Christ “has come not just to eliminate the peripheral results of man’s fall (though these will be totally removed at His second coming); He is here to cut the nerve of man’s real dilemma, to solve the problem from which all other problems flow.”3 The Christ child is a sin-cutter and his work is motivated by an overwhelming love for his people. We are prepared to face our old sins in 2013 because we have seen the Christ child once again.
Christmas refuels our hopes for personal sanctification. This is how Pastor John once put it in a Christmas sermon:
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.4
Yes, there’s a key takeaway.
Through the eyes of faith we have seen the Christ child. The Savior has come and the D-Day victory over sin has been won. By his life and work Christ has crushed the snake, defeated death, and made atonement for sin. We see far more of the story than the shepherds could see. Hope and salvation and joy has been blood-bought for us. And assured of his life, his birth, and his victory we enter back into the rhythms of life. We act the miracle, we face old sins.
This is all possible because the Son of God first arrived in a manger on a mission to destroy the devil, and in destroying the devil’s power we can now face our sins honestly and squarely (1 John 3:8–9). If we get this point at the beginning of 2013, then looking at the Nativity at the end of 2012 has done us marvelous good.