No Christmas without the Cross

fullsizeoutput_11a3The Christmas Tree is up at the Sayler house and we are preparing our home and hearts for the celebration of Christ’s birth. We’ve always been very careful about how we decorate, avoiding the commercial and worldly images and themes of Christmas, and instead focusing on themes from Scripture – and this is especially noticeable on our tree.  Not quite a Chrismon Tree, all of our ornaments fall into 4 categories, Angels, Stars, Nativity Scenes, and Crosses.  Now the first three of those are readily seen in the story of Christ’s birth, but unless we keep the Cross in the story, the birth loses its meaning and purpose.  Indeed, there can be no Christmas without the Cross.

I’ve shared before from James Boice’s book The Christ of Christmas,* but I thought today I’d share just a bit from the opening chapter, The Christmas Story According to Jesus Christ. Boice finds the Christmas story according to Jesus in Hebrews 10:5-7, which is a direct quote from Psalm 40:6-8:

When Christ came into the world, he said,
“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body have you prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,
as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’
Hebrews 10:5–7


What is it that our Lord emphasizes in these verses? First, that He came into the world for a purpose. That is important, for it is uniquely true of Him. It cannot be said of any other person that he or she came into the world to do something. It is often true that there are purposes parents have for their children. They hope that the child lying in a crib will grow up to do something significant in this world. If the parents are Christians, they want their child to be kept from sin and be able to serve Jesus Christ. Parents have those and other aspirations. But the child does not have them. The child has to acquire them. That is why, from a Christian perspective, the child must be taught its destiny from the pages of the Word of God.

But Jesus was different. Our Lord says that He came (and was conscious of coming) for a specific purpose. Moreover, He spells that purpose out: “I have come to do your will, O God.”

What was that will? God willed Christ to be our Savior.

I do not know why it is, be we often lose a sense of that purpose in telling the Christmas story. We focus so much on the birth of the baby and on the sentiment that goes with that story – and there is a certain amount of legitimate sentimentality that goes with it – that we miss the most important things. Actually, the story is treated quite simply in Scripture, and the emphasis is always on the fact that Jesus came to die. The Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, took a human body in oder that He might die for our salvation.  When our Lord speaks of His coming it is therefore highly understandable that He is thinking along those lines.

In the tenth chapter of Hebrews the author contrasts the sacrifices that took place in Israel before the coming of Christ – the sin offerings and burnt offerings, by which believers testified of their faith that God would accept them on the basis of the death of an innocent substitute – with Christ’s great and perfect sacrifice. It is in the context of that contrast, between the former things and that which has now come, between the shadow and the reality, that he brings in the quotations from Psalm 40. The Lord Jesus Christ came into the world with a purpose, and that purpose was to do God’s will: to be our Savior. We miss the most important thing about Christmas if we fail to see that.

Boice, James Montgomery. The Christ of Christmas (Moody Press; Chicago, Ill. 1983)pg 14.

 

He Came to Die

“And this will be a sign for you…”
(Luke 2:12 (ESV))

There is a difficult truth that we are reminded of every time a child is presented for baptism:  We are born sinful and in absolute need of a savior to deliver us from our sins.  It is hard to look at a beautiful new born child and see a sinner (a little easier at three months when you aren’t sleeping at nights and have been pooped, peed, and puked on), but the teaching of Scripture stands.

The Bible says that we are born sinners and that we are sinful by nature:

  • Psalm 51:5 says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.”
  • Ephesians 2:2-3 says that all people who are not in Christ are “sons of disobedience,” and “by nature children of wrath.”
  • Genesis 8:21 declares, “…the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”

We don’t like to dwell on this truth of scripture, but if we deny it we deny the reality of our condition apart from Christ.  We are, from birth, sinful in nature, born into a fallen state, children of wrath.  We are, from birth, sinners in need of a savior.

And so it is all the more powerful when we consider that our Savior Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate every Christmas, was born to die.

When I was at Sterling College, I had the privilege of studying under Dr. Abraham Terian, a Biblical Scholar and Archeologist who was born and raised in Jerusalem.  He shared insights on the story of the Nativity from the Gospel of Luke that were revolutionary for me.  My mind had been so shaped by the renaissance period nativity sets that I had seen growing up, that I never considered what the nativity would have looked like in 1st century Palestine.

Dr. Terian taught us that the stable would not have been a barn like we use today, but most likely a cave or grotto with a gate placed in the opening to keep the animals in.  These caves were common in that region, and had a variety of uses – including burial. 

The manger in which the Christ-child was laid to rest would not have been made of wood like the ones you see portrayed today, but rather of stone.  Wood was scarce, and easily broken, while the large stone troughs would have been more durable, holding water and straw to feed the sheltered animals. 

Even the “swaddling cloths” were a sign of the Baby’s destiny.  In the time which Jesus was born, traveling was dangerous.  Travelers knew that they could get sick, or be attacked, and it was possible they might die on their journey.  To prepare for this possibility, travelers would  take a long, thin cloth and wrap it around their waist many times. This cloth would be reserved for death. If someone died during the journey, their friends or family would remove the “swaddling cloth” and wrap them from head to toe so they could compete the journey (which sheds some light on the story of the Good Samaritan – “and he fell among robbers who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead”).  The “swaddling cloths” which Jesus was wrapped might have likely been the burial cloths that Joseph would have carried for himself.

In the Gospel of Luke, the sign given to the shepherds was that they would “find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger,” that is, they would find a child, wrapped in burial cloths, laid on a stone, buried in a cave.  Everything about this picture reminds us that the Christ Child, Immanuel, has come to die.

This isn’t the Christmas Story that we like to focus on.  Think about it, how many times do we actually sing the second verse of “What Child is This?”

Why lies he in such mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding?
God Christians, fear; for sinners here the silent Word is pleading.
Nail, spear shall pierce him through, the cross be born for me, for you;
hail, hail the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary.

We’d rather hear about the angels singing “Glory to God,” about the love that came down at Christmas, about peace and goodwill toward men.  And well we should.  But the angel’s song, the love, joy, peace, and goodwill, would be meaningless unless there was also a promise of deliverance and salvation from sin.

Just as we are born in sin, Jesus was born to save us from our sin.  The One born with the gift of life came for those who were born in death.  This child in the manger is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Celebrate Christmas.  Rejoice and be glad for your King has come.  But never forget that the One who came so meek and mild is the One who took the cross for our salvation.