Saturday, December 21, 2013

Home for Christmas?

 I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow (Jeremiah 31:13).

Most Christmas songs are happy, but not all.  One example is I’ll be home for Christmas.  The singer is miles away from family and friends.  The verses are filled with nostalgia over happy Christmas celebrations of the past.  But the last verse shows that a holiday reunion is not in the cards this year; I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.

Christmas is the time of year when people think about home and family.  Most are willing to endure long lines in airport terminals or treacherous driving conditions in order to celebrate with loved ones.  Being alone on Christmas is a tragedy; so is being overseas on deployment. 

When Jeremiah spoke as God’s messenger, many Israelites were far from home and unable to return.  The people had largely abandoned God because they were too busy doing other things to pay Him the attention He deserves; as a result, the Lord punished Israel by allowing the nation to be conquered by invaders from the Middle East.  Most of the Israelites were deported to Babylon and its environs.  They were scattered among people who did not share their language, customs or values, and they were not permitted to return home.  The people of Israel were full of sorrow over their situation; they mourned the loss of home and kin. 

But God’s message to them was one of hope.  When they realized how important God was to living a happy life and begged His forgiveness for treating Him like dirt, the Lord would forgive them and bring them back home.  He would turn their mourning into gladness and give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.  It took 70 years for the Israelites to come around, but when they humbled themselves to the Lord, He graciously took them back as His own special people.

Those Israelites of long ago are much like us today.  We have a tendency to shove God to the side because we have other things to do.  God deserves our time—time spent in worship, time spent in prayer, time spent reading the Bible.  But we spend our time on other things—watching TV, texting our friends, playing games.  God deserves our appreciation—but instead of giving generously to the church, we spend our money on expensive foods, cigarettes and liquor, shopping and gambling.  God wants us to help enlarge His kingdom by bringing relatives to church and telling our friends about Jesus; but when we socialize with others, our conversation focuses on gossip and crude jokes.  Do you let God’s law guide your decisions, or do you do whatever you want regardless of what the Lord says?  Do you look at going to church as an opportunity to visit with God, or as a chore that has to be done at least occasionally?  How important is God in your life?

I’ll tell you how important you are to God.  You are so important that He made you different from everyone else, someone unique and special.  You are so important that God adopted you into His family through the washing of Holy Baptism.  You are so important that God sent His Son to the cross so your sins can be forgiven, making you clean and welcome in God’s immaculate home.

That’s what Christmas is all about—God inviting you into His family, God opening His home to you.  Sin has made us homeless wanderers in a foreign land.  Sin makes us unpleasant to be around, so we often find ourselves alone with our sorrow.  Sin makes people do things that are foolish, dangerous and completely self-serving; as a result we live in a world that often makes no sense, and we mourn for a life of love and stability. 

But sorrow and mourning can serve a useful purpose when they drive us to our knees and turn our attention to the Savior.  We are full of pride; we act as if we have all the answers and can handle any problem on our own.  In reality we need God, but we are often too stubborn to admit it.  Sometimes we need sorrow and mourning to rip away our pride so we might turn to God for help. 

God wants us to repent; He wants us to admit that we’ve messed up big time and cannot fix things on our own.  When we trade pride for humility, the Lord is ready to forgive us.  He will turn our mourning into gladness and give us comfort and joy instead of sorrow. 

This was Jesus’ mission when He came to earth on the very first Christmas.  The Son of God came to turn mourning into gladness and give comfort and joy instead of sorrow.  All mankind lived in sorrow because of sin; everyone mourned because death stole away their loved ones.  Jesus came to change all that.  Christ was born as a human being so He could live the life that God expects from each of us; Jesus submitted to God at all times and obeyed the laws of heaven perfectly.  Jesus was also born as a man so that He could die in our place; on the cross our Lord paid the penalty for every time we have made God angry.  Jesus lived for us and died for us, that we might have gladness, comfort and joy. 

How do we know that Jesus satisfied God on our behalf?  Our Savior rose from the dead on Easter morning, triumphant over sin and death!  God rewarded His successful work by seating Christ at His right hand and granting our Savior complete authority over our lives.

Why did the Son of God go through all that?  Why would the Prince of heaven spend His first night in a cattle shed?  Why would the Messiah live as a wanderer with no permanent home?  Why would God’s Chosen One let Himself be accused of crimes He did not commit and suffer a painful death that He did not deserve?  It can all be summed up in one word—love.

1 John 4:8 says, God is love.  Everything He does is motivated by love.  Sin makes people miserable—God punishes sin so that we might repent and seek His help to live happier lives.  Sin makes us turn away from God; Jesus suffered and died to free you from sin, so you can be part of God’s family forever.  God’s love is for everyone, and Jesus did His work for the sake of everyone; God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).  Jesus was not born in a palace, where no one but royalty could see Him—He was born also for shepherds, also for us.  Jesus lived a life of easy accessibility so that people from every background could approach Him.  Jesus never turned anyone away, regardless of the shameful things they were guilty of.

A family gathering is not complete if someone stays away because of hurt feelings or an old grudge.  Jesus came into our world to forgive sins and bring families back together, teaching them to forgive each other as He forgives us.  A family is not complete when some members have been lost to death.  Jesus died and rose to assure us that at the resurrection all believers will be reunited, never to be separated again.  Through Jesus we can have the perfect family we’ve always hungered for.

God is faithful; when the people living in exile turned to Him for leadership, our Father in heaven forgave their sins, brought them together in the home they longed for, and replaced sorrow and mourning with gladness and joy.  The Lord is ready to comfort you as well.  Are you mourning some loss?  Is your life made bitter by sorrow?  God invites you to the manger where He presents the gift of His Son.  Jesus came to forgive your mistakes.  Jesus came to help you reconcile with those who’ve hurt you.  Jesus came to change death, so it is no longer a cold hole in the ground but is now a gateway into the glories of heaven. 

I started this message by quoting from a sad Christmas song.  Let’s close with one that echoes the joy of God’s message given through Jeremiah: God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay, Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day; To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray. O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy; O tidings of comfort and joy.

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