Is Christmas under threat?

In the news these days, all we seem to hear is the coming of the latest threat to Christmas. Omicron is the latest Grinch that stole Christmas. Many families are unable to gather together this year and others are experiencing the first Christmas without a loved one. You may be one of them, feeling a sense of loss or wistfulness about how Christmas ought to be.

A Google news search of the word ‘Christmas’ reveals global doom instead of joy and jubilation: “CHRISTMAS UNDER THREAT FROM COVID!”. “COVID CRISIS–ARE CHRISTMAS TRAVEL PLANS UNDER THREAT?” “CHRISTMAS TREES UNDER THREAT FROM SUPPLY CHAIN ISSUES.” “CHRISTMAS PARTIES UNDER THREAT—CANCELLATIONS AS NEW STRAIN EMERGES!” ‘ELDERLY MOST AT RISK.” “SOUTH AFRICA IN FOR A BLEAK CHRISTMAS”. The media seem to enjoy stoking the fires of fear, panic and gloom in the general population!

But as I was reading through the nativity stories in Luke and Matthew, thinking about the genuine disappointments surrounding Christmas this year, it struck me how the true impact of Christ’s birth transcends the events of human history and our personal stories, no matter how miserable or chaotic these might be. Christmas is robust, durable and resilient, as the story it represents is safely embedded in the hearts of those who worship Christ as Saviour and Lord. Christ is the Lord of Christmas, not Covid!

Perhaps it’s because Christmas has been hijacked for so many years, that it’s easy to overlook the true identity of the baby in the manger. Christmas is not defined by a single day, nor is it centered around celebrations, a tree or a fat jolly man in red clothes. It is centered around Christ the Saviour, who came to give us the wonderful gift of forgiveness of sins.

Christ is the gift of Christmas, and without Him, we are left with just wrapping paper and ribbons. If Christ is not at the centre of our heart and our delight at Christmas, then fear, disappointment and emptiness are inevitable. Without the King, Christmas is fragile and meaningless. Let’s look carefully at the baby in the manger and ask ourselves who He was and what Christmas truly represents.

Joy to the world, peace on earth.

The greatest gift of Christmas is Christ’s offer to reconcile sinners to our Creator and to reconcile us to each other in love.

And so, a believer’s joy at Christmas time is not dependent on world peace; happy family gatherings; glittering trees and holidays; good health, gifts and a table heaving with gran’s roast ham, turkey and crispy potatoes!  I’m not saying these things aren’t utterly wonderful, but Jesus Himself is the wonderful gift of Christmas. He is the joy of man’s desiring. He is joy to the world. In the words of the angel, Christ’s birth is “good news of great joy that will be for all people” (Luke 2:10).

“Peace on earth” reminds me of the Christmas truce of 1914, when World War 1 soldiers on opposite sides emerged from the trenches to sing Christmas carols and exchange gestures of goodwill. German Lieutenant, Kurt Zehmisch, recalled:

“How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”

Perhaps these soldiers, surrounded by the horrors of war, instinctively longed for the baby wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger, the only innocent Saviour who can guide our feet into the path of peace and provide peace on earth (Luke 2:14). Those desolate men longed for true, lasting peace that only the Prince of Peace can bring.

Zechariah’s prophetic song gives us insight into the Prince of Peace and what He will do for His people:

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
    because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
    in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
    and from the hand of all who hate us—
 to show mercy to our ancestors
    and to remember his holy covenant,
     the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
    and to enable us to serve him without fear
     in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
    through the forgiveness of their sins,
 because of the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
 to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 2:68-79)

Although there is plenty of turmoil in our world right now, we can be absolutely sure that Christ’s reign will bring ultimate peace on earth, as God himself has promised it:

“Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)

And so, if Christ the King has come to earth, Christmas cannot be cancelled or threatened by anything in this world, because no one and nothing can contest His rule. Joy and peace are ours in Christ, regardless of our circumstances. He is our Prince of peace.

Christmas is the time we remember how Christ, driven by love, came into our sinful, chaotic world in real time and history. We remember that He will come again. And in the meantime, we hold out his light to those living in darkness, passing on his message of peace and goodwill to the world.

Worship the King.

Christmas also leads us to worship and adore the King, just like the eclectic group of people that God chose to greet His baby Son:

Some Magi from the East, who were trained to identify kings and stars, came to worship baby Jesus in the stable. When they saw the child with his mother Mary, “they bowed down and worshipped him”, offering him their treasures and gifts of gold, incense and myrrh (Matt 2:11). They refused to comply with king Herod’s order, recognizing the greater authority of the divine King in the stable.

Some dirty shepherds in rural fields came to check out the stable for themselves to see if what the angel had said was true (Luke 2:8-21). When they had verified the facts, they returned to their sheep, “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told” (Luke 2:20). They took time to find out the truth about Jesus and then worshipped Him as King.

Likewise, a devout old priest called Simeon who had been waiting expectantly for the Messiah– “the consolation of Israel,” took the baby Jesus in his arms and praised God, saying,

“For my eyes have seen your salvation,
     which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
    and the glory of your people Israel…

To Mary, he said, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your soul also” (Luke 2:29-32).

Simeon recognized Jesus as the long awaited Messiah-King promised in the Old Testament. He said that Jesus would be a light to the entire world and would have a paradoxical effect on Israel. With Jesus, there would be no neutral ground. People would either joyfully embrace him as King or totally reject him.

Nothing has changed today. We either worship Jesus as Lord of all, or not at all. There is no middle ground. Christmas is about recognizing our great sin and need of atonement that only Christ can give. It is apt to bow to Him in repentance and faith, offering Him our lives of joyful obedience in 2022.

Unless we worship Christ as King, Christmas is meaningless.

Welcoming the Saviour of the world.

The nativity story reminds us that the King of the universe was first greeted by the lowly and the ordinary.

A devout teenage girl and a carpenter welcomed Christ into the world in a stable in Bethlehem. It was all they had to offer him. Joseph and Mary completely surrendered their lives to the angel’s extraordinary message, even though they knew they would face the mockery and shame of raising a ‘bastard’ child.

Mary recognized that the son she would bear was no ordinary boy, but the Son of the Most High God. She heard Simeon’s warning that her soul would be pierced (Luke 2:35). Although Mary understood the cost, she responded with joy to her commission. “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38).

Listen to Mary’s song of willing surrender, telling us something of the extraordinary baby in the manger and what he would accomplish:

And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
 for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
     for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
    holy is his name.
 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
 He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
 He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.”

We sing sentimentally of the night when Jesus was born to this teenage girl, but do we appreciate how hard it must have been for Mary and Joseph to welcome the Saviour of the world into their lives?

“Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, and all is bright
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace..”

It wasn’t all about peace and calm, that’s for sure.

Looking beyond the baby in the manger.

For many of us, the trimmings of Christmas have been stripped away this year. But Christmas is not under threat and it will always be a blessed time if we pay careful attention to the baby in the manger and remember who He really is:

The child who was born in Bethlehem is God with us, ‘Immanuel’, even if you are cut off from your loved ones on Christmas day.

He is the ‘Prince of Peace’, even if there is conflict and chaos around you.

The baby in the manger is the ‘Wonderful Counsellor’, even if it feels like there is no one to help and counsel you. Unlike the leaders of the world, this King needs no one to instruct Him (Isa 40:12-15). He is ‘Mighty God’ and ‘Everlasting Father’, the unrivalled King who has no peers. He is the God who measures the waters in the hollow of his hand, who regards the nations like a drop in a bucket.

Christmas is the perfect time to worship and welcome the true King and Saviour of the world. It is the perfect time to remember a tiny human baby who lived a perfect life, died for us, ascended into heaven and will come back to earth as King of kings and Lord of lords.

Jesus Christ didn’t issue a decree from on high or appear remotely on a computer screen. He came in person. Born to a teenage virgin in Bethlehem. During the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. This baby Jesus completely sliced history into two parts—B.C (Before Christ) and A.D (Anno Domini, Latin for ‘the year of the Lord’).

It is not the coming of Omicron we should be concerned about. It is the coming of Christ the King that should occupy our thoughts day and night, all year round.

Wherever you find yourself this Christmas, let’s sing together and worship Christ the King for who He really is:

Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King
Peace on earth, and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled
Joyful, all ye nations, rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With th’ angelic host proclaim
Christ is born in Bethlehem
Har, the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King

Hail, the heav’n-born Prince of peace
Hail! the Son of Righteousness
Light and life to all he brings
Risen with healing in his wings
Mild he lays his glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King

The righteous shall live by faith

Series: Some maxims worth meditating on, by Rosie Moore.

As humans, we love slogans don’t we? The Bible is full of wise proverbs or maxims that Christians often throw about liberally to clarify a point or make us sound more convincing or credible, or to help us remember something profound and true. I love the pithy way that African proverbs convey down-to-earth advice and wisdom for life.

But sometimes Christians are blissfully unaware that the ‘biblical’ words of wisdom they have just sprouted are not from the Bible at all! For example, “God helps those who help themselves,” or “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” or my personal favourite, “God gives his toughest battles to his finest soldiers”!

I must confess that the walls of my house, my car dashboard,  fridge and even the inside of my extractor fan, are littered with little verses and maxims I’ve held onto over the years to remind me of what God has taught me from his Word.  I confess that I’m guilty as charged!

Over the next few weeks, we’ll sink some shafts into a few Biblical sayings that are worth mining. We will re-visit them in their original context and see what nuggets of gold may be hiding below the topsoil of familiarity. Who knows, perhaps we’ll re-discover a great treasure from God’s Word that we’ve half understood or half forgotten.

“The righteous shall live by faith.”

Today, we’ll look at Paul’s well known saying in Romans 1:17“The righteous shall live by faith.”

This saying is actually a quote from Habakkuk 2:4, written around 600BC, speaking about the imminent punishment of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians. It was spoken in the context of God’s judgment. This is what the prophet says about God’s faithful people, living amongst the wicked and unjust people who seemed to have the upper hand in Habakkuk’s day. Habakkuk encourages them to keep trusting the Lord for their salvation, even in the midst of the nation’s judgment:

“For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
    it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
    it will surely come; it will not delay.

“Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
    but the righteous shall live by his faith.”

The maxim “The righteous shall live by faith” has rightly inspired believers throughout the centuries to live by their faith and trust in God, even when we don’t understand why events occur as they do. To continue to believe, even when evil and oppression seem to be the order of the day. To live by faith and not by feelings; to walk by faith and not by sight.

The power of God for salvation.

But let’s look at the context in which this quote is embedded in Romans. Paul writes:

“I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. 15 So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”

 An eternal quest for salvation.

Men and women were seeking salvation in the first century Greco-Roman world when Paul wrote his letter, just as modern humanity is still craving salvation today. Humankind is desperately sick and in need of a Saviour, no matter how sophisticated or powerful we may think we are. This great quest for salvation has been exposed in our own generation by the great fears of the last two years.

That’s why Epictetus, the great stoic philosopher in 135AD called his lecture theatre, “The hospital for the sick soul”. In fact, nothing is new. Humanity has been on a permanent quest for salvation since Genesis 3. We know we are in desperate need of help.

This holiday I’ve had the chance to watch a few thrillers on TV. Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington are my favourite heroes! The only problem is, despite my best efforts to stay focussed, I always nod off just before the end of the movie. The next morning I sit at the breakfast table and ask my family, “So guys, what happened at the end of that great movie?” The answer is always a variation on the same theme:

“The good guy/girl saved the family…the space ship…the submarine…the innocent kid…the kidnapped girl…the world!” Every good story involves a saviour of some sort, because that is the theme of the greatest story the world has ever known—the gospel story. Everyone is looking for a human saviour to resolve the tragedies of the world and turn doom and despair into joy.

That’s why Paul declares, without apology, that he is not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, first for the Jew and then the Gentile! The human Saviour is Jesus Christ—God in the flesh. All other saviours are powerless in the one thing that really matters: They cannot make us righteous before God.

Not ashamed of the gospel!

Those are pretty confident words of Paul’s, especially in a sophisticated city like Rome, where Christians were ridiculed for believing a gospel which was centered around a crucified Jewish Saviour, embraced by all classes of people. They were an unusual cohort of believers:

Slaves, soldiers, women, children, half castes, tax collectors, former lepers and demoniacs, beggars, widows and immigrants. Former prostitutes sat alongside synagogue leaders, fishermen, Pharisees, physicians, tent makers, property owners, patricians and a fabric merchant. They were united by one baptism, one Spirit, one faith. And their common Saviour was Jesus Christ.

That’s why Paul is not ashamed of the good news of Jesus Christ! He knows that this gospel has inherent power, because Christ is its Saviour. Christ is the only righteous man capable of saving the world, and uniting us to God and each other.

We don’t give the gospel power by our eloquence or righteous deeds. The power is in the message itself. The gospel is more than good advice, an uplifting message or a call to harness the power within. The gospel is more than a health product that may extend our life for a few more years. The gospel is God’s power for salvation, the only solution to the sin that we all have in common.

And Paul is equally clear that God will never withhold this salvation from anyone who believes. Believing is the only requirement. We are saved by God’s grace, through faith alone. Life is promised to us now, in death and for all eternity.

If you are a believer who is feeling unworthy, doubtful or afraid for the future, be assured that the righteous shall live by faith, not feelings. If you have embraced the gospel by faith, you can bank your life and death on God’s salvation, no matter how you feel. Faith does not depend on constant euphoria or feelings of peace and security.

Faith alone.

Do the righteous live by feelings? Or by knowledge? Or by science? Or by the President’s next family meeting on TV? Or by political stability? No, God tells us that the righteous shall live by faith alone. If we live by anything else, we will be misled and disappointed.

I recently saw a picture of the new giant sculpture that the United Nations has placed in New York. The U.N.  tweeted a photo and description of the statue, which many Christians have noted looks remarkably like the two beasts recorded in the book of Revelation (Rev 13:2) and the beast of Daniel 7:2-4, with allusions to Paul’s warning in 1 Thess 5:2-3. The UN’s tweet reads:

“A guardian for international peace and security sits on the Visitor’s Plaza outside the #UN Headquaters. The guardian is a fusion of jaguar and eagle and donated by the government of Oaxaca, Mexico.”

I’m no reader of the times or judge of the artists’ motives, but if we are believers, we must accept that there is no ultimate guardian for international peace and security apart from Jesus Christ. Through Him, individuals are assured of a right relationship with God our Creator and the world is assured of an end to all death and disorder, doom and despair in the new creation. As we trust Christ, we are saved from all the consequences of sin. We are declared righteous and find life, both now and forever.

Faith is a word with several applications in Scripture:

1. Faith can mean ‘faithfulness’ (Matt 24:45). It was the word Christ used to describe the faithful and wise servant whom God has set over his household and all his possessions.

2. Faith can mean ‘confident hope’ in what God has promised to those who have put their trust in the Lord Jesus: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1).

3. Faith can mean ‘a fruitful life’, in contrast to the barren life of a person whose habitual actions don’t live up to his/her words: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14-26“But the message they heard was of no value to them, because they did not share the faith of those who obeyed” (Heb 4:2).

All of these meanings of ‘faith’ are valid. But, what does Paul mean by ‘faith’ in Romans 1:17, when he says, “The righteous shall live by faith?” It’s clear from the context that Paul tethers faith with the gospel of salvation. He is talking about saving faith.

The assurance of saving faith.

God declares us to be righteous because of faith in Christ. Salvation is through faith alone. But faith is not something we must do to earn salvation. If that were true, then faith would be just one more item on a relentless to-do list, to earn favour with God.

Instead, faith is a gift that God gives us because he is saving us (Eph 2:8). It is God’s grace, not our faith, that saves us.

I don’t know about you, but some days I’m incredulous at God’s great mercy and grace in saving me, not just many years ago, but in the present and future too. In his mercy, he gives us a soft heart to respond to his gospel message. In his kindness and patience, God gives us a relationship with the Lord Jesus to help us become more and more like him. By grace and through faith alone, Christ makes us righteous– unworthy and unrighteous as we are. Saving faith is wonderful and reassuring from first to last!

Over the bridge of faith, Christ carries us from death to life. We have complete assurance of this salvation.

As Jesus himself said, “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” (John 5:24)

When Christ was victorious over death, He cancelled all charges against believers and opened the way to the Father (Col 2:12-15). If you are a believer, you can be assured that you are not condemned, as you no longer stand under God’s judgment. The only way for a human being to live without fear is through faith.

From first to last.

Salvation has always been by grace, through faith, from first to last. I love that bit! Even in Old Testament times, the basis of salvation was grace, not good deeds. The blood of all the bulls and goats in the world couldn’t take away the sins of even the most devout Israelite (Heb 10:4). Unless God’s people combined the covenant laws with true faith, they could not be saved (Heb 4:2). God wanted his people to look beyond the sacrifices and laws to Him, but all too often they put their confidence in fulfilling the requirements of the law.

When faith is confused with righteous acts, Christians are robbed forever of their assurance, because we are unable to muster up our own righteousness or faith. Knowing what is right and wrong is not good enough. We have to obey the law we know. Paul goes on to say, “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous (Rom 2:13).

We can never declare ourselves righteous or construct our own faith, because, in Paul’s words, we are born with “stubborn and unrepentant hearts” that are not inclined towards faith at all (Rom 2:5-11). We are utterly incapable of living up to our own standards of righteousness, let alone God’s perfect standards. Without faith in Jesus, we are capable only of “storing up God’s wrath against ourselves for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.”

Who of us can obey the law of God? Who of us has never hated, lied, lusted, envied, withheld what rightfully belongs to someone else, worshipped a false god, dishonoured our parents or treated the Sabbath just like any other day? Who of us has loved God and our neighbour perfectly?

So then, who can stand on the day when “God will give to each person according to what he has done”, on the day “when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ?” (Rom 2:5-11Rom 2:16). This is our common plight as humanity,”for God does not show favouritism” in his just judgments (Rom 2:11).

But in his kindness, God has held back his judgment, giving people a time to repent and trust in Christ’s righteousness. That’s why Paul says that he is not ashamed of the gospel, because it is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes…For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.” (Rom 1:16-17). Our righteousness comes from the only perfect man who ever lived—Jesus Christ. We don’t stand alone. We stand with him.

Without faith in Christ alone—in his righteous life, his atoning death and his victorious resurrection, no one will stand that final encounter with the Creator. How then can we be ashamed of the one message that can save a person’s life from the greatest peril that humanity faces?

Powerful salvation.

And so, as we prepare our hearts to enter a new year, perhaps another hard year with temporal dangers like COVID and lockdowns; unemployment and corruption; threats and instability; false fears, false gospels and false saviours, Romans 1:17 reminds us that believers do not have to pack our bags and think as losers.

Our faith relies on a victorious Saviour and a powerful King who will continue to advance and bring salvation in the world, one heart at a time, one community at a time, through his human foot soldiers who trust in Him.  Jesus is seated in power at the right hand of God in heaven, where he will reign until all His enemies are subdued (Ps 110:1).

May we be convinced that the real peril of the world is God’s judgment. The real Saviour of the world is Jesus Christ. And our good deeds are real responses to what God has done for us on the cross. They are not the bridge to salvation. Christ is.

“The righteous shall live by faith.”