So, it is over. The big day has finally come and gone. All the preparation, all the work, all the decorations and festivities have been exhausted. What are we left with? An overflowing trash heap with empty amazon boxes and the remnants of wrapping paper. We have the memories, of course, memories of the kids unwrapping the presents and the smiles and the fun of sitting around in our PJ’s and just spending some time with the family. We have eaten more than our share of deserts and Christmas goodies. We feel the effects of Christmas on our waistlines. But for many, Christmas time tends to leave behind a financial cost as well. There are certain stresses which are pushed off amid all the gift buying and meal perpetration that goes unnoticed until the credit card statements roll around the month afterward. And it is at such a time that we begin to really count the cost of Christmas.
But there is an emotional cost of Christmas as well. On the one hand, gathering with family can cause one to reflect on life choices; on how you ended up where you are and for some this is painful, full of regret and missed opportunity. On the other hand, there are the disappointments and unanswered longings which are often part and parcel to a family. I think part of the gathering we do at Christmas leads directly into our New Year resolutions. We resolve to make changes, to do things better, to be better. It flows from the emotional roller coaster of Christmas time. After Christmas, many look forward to getting back into a routine, back into some schedule that can help them make the progress they desire. We all know there is a cost to Christmas.
But this is just scratching the surface. We may be able to count the cost of our celebration of Christmas, but the cost of the real Christmas, the actual arrival of God in human flesh is almost too much to count. For it is counted not in financial debt or stress or regret but in blood and tears. Matthew tells us the story of what happened in the little town of Bethlehem after the Magi came from the east to worship our Lord. King Herod was expecting them to return to him, to inform him where the child was born. But they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod and so went home a different way. Herod, of course, was furious and in his anger, lashed out brutally. He would tolerate no threat to his throne. No child born to be King of the Jews would be allowed to remain alive. So, an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream and says,
“Rise, take the Child and His mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search or the Child, to destroy Him” (Matthew 2:13).
If you remember, Herod had already ascertained at what time the Magi said the star appeared in the sky, the star which would lead them to Bethlehem. So, he uses it as a gauge to figure how old this child might be. At the oldest, he figures the Christ child might be two. So, what does he do? He kills all the male children of Bethlehem and in all the region who were two years old or under. God comes. He comes to walk the perfect life, to give freedom from sin, death and the power of the devil. He comes to open the gates of paradise, to offer the forgiveness of sins, and what happens? What is the cost? Mothers bury their infants and a whole town weeps for the consolation of God. Right out of the gate, before the Christmas tree has even begun to lose its needles, we are confronted with this horrible news. We are immediately reminded how this coming of God does not happen without opposition. There will be hatred and treachery by those who would have the whole thing undone.
Now, we may not want to count the cost of Christmas, but I think it is important for us to remember the way this faith we confess has been delivered over to us through the mouths of martyrs. There is always a consequence, a cost to the proclamation of salvation, by grace, through faith in Christ alone. Think of it this way, on the 25th of December we celebrate the arrival of our salvation, but did you know that in the church calendar the 26th of December is called Saint Stephen’s Day. It is a day to commemorate his martyrdom. Stephen was the first martyr of the Christian Church. He was stoned to death because he would not stop preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. And like his Lord before him he prayed for forgiveness of those who were killing him.
There is senseless violence against the gift of grace, there always has been and so it seems there always will be; at least until our Lord’s return and the end of this age. Grace robs people of control. It does not allow for us to get credit for our deeds or our good intentions. It throws everything on Christ alone. One of the hard lessons I learned early on in my career as a pastor is that, deep down, people are looking for some glory, some small recognition of their works. If glory is denied them, they will turn against whatever it is that stops it – even if what is stopping their own glory is the glory of the only begotten Son of God.
But your God will not be deterred. One of the lessons we learn from this horrible story of the cost of Christmas is how senseless violence and direct opposition to the work and will of God will not stop that work. Herod does not get to be a hero in this story, he does not get to lay a finger on the head of Jesus. No, when he dies it will be a great public act, at the right time according to the will of the Father so He might draw the nations to Himself. Joseph is warned and being newly resupplied with luxurious gifts form the Magi they escape into Egypt until God calls them back and fulfills the great prophecy, “Out of Egypt I called my Son.”
This is good news my friends. If God is not deterred by opposition to His grace, if He will not be stopped in unfolding the great story of your salvation, what do you imagine He will do when He faces your sin? You may think, oh pastor if you only knew what I have done, how I have conducted myself, you would not be so sure about this grace thing. You may join the ranks of those in opposition to His gifts and demand you take some responsibility, do some work, show something worthy on your part before you can be sure of His promises. You may insist you need to clean yourself up before you can consider the true gift of Christmas. But I tell you, God is not deterred.
Your Father in Heaven knows. He knows your thoughts, words and deeds. He knows your desire for glory and your failure to perfect it. He knows your fears and your doubts. He knows how you secretly judge others and try to lift yourself up by pushing them down. He knows the screaming opposition to grace and, knowing it all, He speaks it yet again to you this day. He simply declares the gifts of His Son. He declares His Son’s life, His love, His inheritance is yours. He took from you all your deeds, all your shallow attempts to perfect yourself and get your own glory. He takes your sins and your failure and claims them as His own so you might have His righteousness.
The cost of Christmas if far greater than we ever imagined. It is paid for in blood sweat and tears, in the loss of pride and arrogance. He takes from you all you have so He might give you absolutely everything. He gives you certainty. He gives you salvation. He gives you forgiveness and life everlasting.