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Sermon:   Christmas Unplugged:  Conceived In Sin

Scripture:  Genesis 3:14-24

Date:  July 1, 2018

I love Christmas.   I will just confess it right now.   

I love the music.   I love to decorate and might go a little overboard in doing so.   Every year as I am packing up the trees and lights and nativities I vow to cut back next year, but we never do.    I love the cookies. I love the special services in the church. I love the way we decorate the church. I love the television specials.   And I love sitting around the tree on Christmas morning with the family, opening presents. I love Christmas.

 

I love the spirit of the whole thing.       But the truth is that the things I love about Christmas are mostly  things that the world has added to the party. Christmas trees, bright shiny lights, Santa Claus and the reindeer, Christmas music, the parties.   And deep down I suspect that those things have been added because the church has not wanted to deal with the real “spirit” of Christmas because if we did we would discover that the message of Christmas is not quite what we celebrate every December.   And so we go to great lengths to conceal some of the essential truths about the birth of Jesus. For Mary and Joseph and Jesus, there was a great deal of darkness about that first Christmas that I think, consciously or unconsciously, we try to cover up with our trees and light and tinsel.   There was scorn and ridicule and rejection because of the perception of the illegitimate way that the baby was conceived. Mary didn’t decide to go to Bethlehem with Joseph because she thought it might be a nice journey to make at nine months pregnant. What pregnant woman would want to climb on the back of a donkey and make a long, hard journey like that.   She had to know that she was endangering her life and that of her unborn baby. I think the only reason she would make that choice is because she feared more for her life and her babies well being if she remained in Nazareth without Joseph then she did on the road with him. And it was not a bright time for the Jewish people either. Oppression, A crushing tax burden, Poverty.   Disease. War. So in the next few weeks we are going to try to unplug Christmas – strip away all of the trappings of the day and focus on some of the truths that we don’t always get around to in our more secular observances. You see the truth is, the church has never really known what to do with Christmas. For the first three centuries of the churches existence, the church did not celebrate the birth of Jesus at all because in general the Bible did not celebrate anyone’s birth.   For the most part, the writers of Scripture were focused on how a person lived and died and not the circumstances of their birth. That’s why only Luke and Matthew tell the story of Jesus’ birth and then there is a huge gap between his birth and the beginning of His ministry, even in their Gospels. In fact, it wasn’t until the beginning of the 4th Century that the church began to celebrate the birth of Christ at all.  That’s when Pope Julian I ordered a festival be observed on the date of Jesus’ birth, which he arbitrarily assigned to December 25, but it would really be another 300 years in the church before the Feast of Christmas would gain wide spread acceptance and really be celebrated in the church.  

 

And it did not take long for some of the more pagan elements to be added to the Advent and Christmas observances and by the 1600s Oliver Cromwell and the puritans considered Christmas to be a more pagan festival than a Christian feast and they banned the celebration of Christmas entirely.   When the pilgrims came to America in 1620, they did not celebrate Christmas and in fact when the Massachusetts colony was first established the celebration of Christmas was banned by law. It wouldn’t be until the 1800’s that the celebration of Christmas would reemerge fueled by more secular writings like Dicken’s Christmas Carol.   By that point it was hard to separate the secular from the spiritual in the way Christmas was celebrated. And in a way, I think that is intentional.

 

I suspect the way we celebrate Christmas in the church and outside the church is in part to cover over the harder messages of Christmas.   After all who wants to talk about sin, and sacrifice and death, when all the world is wrapped up in the joy and hope of the birth of the baby.   Let’s sing about Joy To The World and Hark The Herald Angels Sing, rather than the words of the Canticle of Light and Darkness which begins: “We look for light but find darkness, for brightness, but walk in gloom” or “O come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here”.  How do we reconcile that with Christmas trees covered with treasured ornaments and bright shiny lights and Santa Claus and dreaming of White Christmases.   The truth is that we can’t and we don’t really want to because when we unplug Christmas, we have to deal with the truth that the baby Jesus was conceived in sin.   You see the Christmas story does not begin in the first chapters of Luke and Matthew’s Gospel, with Angels and glorious proclamations.  It begins in the hidden places of the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve first hid from God.    It does not begin with Joseph and Mary and their obedience.   No the story of Christmas begins with Adam and Eve and their disobedience.   It does not begin with an immaculate conception but rather with the promise of a savior conceived in sin.   It does not begin with humanity emerging from darkness to light as our celebrations would imply. No the story of Christmas begins when humanity descends from the incredible light of Eden, of perfection, to the dark shadows of the world.   Long before Mary conceived the answer to humanity’s depravity and gave birth to Jesus in a humble stable, Eve gave birth in the midst of perfection to our problem with sin and the Christmas story began, because that’s when humanity became in need of a savior.  Christmas was conceived in sin.  Ellsworth Kalas called this the “scandal of Christmas” and wrote this:  “There wouldn’t be a Christmas, wouldn’t be a need for Christmas, if it weren’t for our scandal.  Christmas didn’t come to our human race because we worked ourselves up to it, or because we evolved to a state of deserving such a favor; Christmas came because we’re a scandalous lot.”   And what is our natural human inclination when confronted with scandal -we try to cover it up. In the case of Christmas with shiny lights and Christmas trees and special event after special event.  Just like Adam and Eve tried to hide their sin in the garden, I think we try to hide our sin behind the more secular trappings of our Christmas celebrations. Kalas goes on to say: “Almost any wondrous thing in this world of ours can be turned into a means of holding God at a distance.”   Is that what we do with how we celebrate Christmas?  Rather than embrace a Savior, hold God at a distance.   So unplug everything you treasure about how we celebrate Christmas, and listen to how the writer of Genesis tells the story.   

Read Genesis 3: 14-24

We tend to place Mary and Joseph at the center of the Christmas story, but before there was Mary and Joseph, there was Eve and Adam.   And the truth is that you can’t have one without the other. It was the disobedience of Eve that made the obedience of Mary possible.  The Christmas story began when Eve gave into temptation and disobeyed God.  You see we tend to think of sin in terms of the bad things we do. And so for Eve we say the bad thing she did was eating of the fruit of the tree that God had placed off limits, but her  action was the consequence of her sin. It was the sin of disobedience that was the original sin. We tend to think that if we can eliminate the bad action, or at the least conceal it so it doesn’t harm others, then we have overcome our sin.   But when the true sin is disobedience, despite our best efforts to eliminate the consequences, the sin still remains. It will simply be revealed in other ways. God knew that knowing the consequences, Eve would probably not eat anymore of that forbidden fruit, but her disobedience would be evidenced in other ways.  They were expelled from the Garden because of their actions, but it was their disobedience that led to their separation from God.     I would say that all of us have been guilty of the sin of disobedience from time to time.   Every time we engage in actions that we know to be wrong, but do it anyway, we disobey God.  Paul describes the sin of disobedience as “doing the very things I hate.” Eve disobeyed God because she thought she knew better what she needed.   When we disobey God we are in essence trying to replace God in our lives.   We are saying that we know best what we need in this world.   And so the great promise that God makes to Adam and Eve, is that though they have sinned at Satan’s (in the form of the serpent) urging, God will raise up from the descendants of Eve a great redeemer who will crush our sin, our disobedience, once and for all.   That’s the promise of Genesis 3 which from this point forward becomes a common theme throughout all of scripture. Man’s disobedience and God’s promise of a redeemer. The Christmas story unplugged begins with the promise of a redeemer who will rise up from the “seed of Eve” and finds it’s fulfillment in the birth of Jesus, the seed of Mary.  More than anything else, Christmas is a redemption story.

 

And Christmas unplugged is also the story of God’s great forgiveness.   Of course, until there was sin there was no need for forgiveness. So Adam and Eve not only added sin to the story of Christmas, but they also added the need to be forgiven.   Christmas unplugged is all about our need to be forgiven for our sins. In the mind of the writer of Genesis, forgiveness becomes substitutionary in nature and so God promises a Savior to Adam and Eve who will serve as humanity’s substitute for our collective sins.   God could have, of course, struck down Adam and Eve on the spot for their act of disobedience. But that would not have restored Eden to it’s state of perfection. You see, it was not the bite out of the apple that angered God, it was His creation’s bent towards disobedience that He knew was going to plague men and women forever.    And Genesis tells us that the price of atonement must be paid in blood. One writer says this: “When Adam and Eve failed to obey the terms of the covenant, God did not destroy them (which would have served justice), but instead revealed His covenant by promising a Savior, one who would restore the kingdom that had literally been destroyed.”   But the promised atonement will be costly. Genesis tells us that even the heel of the Savior will be bruised. Now in our 21st Century mindset, a bruised heal seems a small price to pay for atonement, but in the mindset of the writers of the Old Testament a “bruised heal” spoke of pain and blood sacrifice. Clearly, this is a metaphor that in this context is to be contrasted with the blow the serpent will receive – which is death (the crushing of his head), but it is immediately apparent what this involves—the shedding of substitutionary blood on the part of the Savior.   When God clothed sinful Adam and Eve in the bloody skins of animals, He linked forever forgiveness and blood sacrifice. And as scripture unfolds that link is emphasized. When Abraham obeys and takes Isaac out to the rock altar to be sacrificed, God instead provides the ram in the thicket as a substitute for the blood and death of Isaac. It is the reward for Abraham’s obedience. Because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, blood and forgiveness were forever linked. When Moses delivered the Ten Commandments to the people in the Wilderness he took the blood of calves mixed it with water, and dipped a hyssop branch in the mixture and sprinkled the tablets, and the people and the tabernacle and the altar and everything else the people used in their religious ceremonies, sealing the covenant with blood.   When the Temple was built the priests would sacrifice the animals the people brought to worship, and spread the atoning blood over the altar. And, of course, when Jesus offered the cup to His disciples at their last supper together, before He faced the Cross, He told them that the cup represented the blood of a New Covenant, His substitutionary blood poured out for them, and for everyone – for what? – the forgiveness of sins. In a sense the circle was made complete. The Redemption promised to Adam and Eve as they were leaving the perfection of Eden had come. At Christmas Jesus was born covered with the blood of disobedience and sin (though that doesn’t fit with any of our Christmas images), and on the cross He was covered with the blood of forgiveness and covenant. You see, in our traditional Christmas celebrations we picture Jesus in the manger after He has been cleaned up and made presentable for the Shepherds and Angels and Kings.  In our celebrations we tend to clean up Christmas. But the picture that Genesis foretells is of a Savior that will be bruised and bloodied in his battle with Satan to win humanity’s forgiveness and salvation and redemption. To crush sin forever. You see what is often missing from our traditional Christmas celebration is this understanding of forgiveness and sacrifice. We have so sanitized our Christmas celebration that there are many more people who celebrate the birth of a savior without ever acknowledging their personal need for a savior.   Who don’t understand that personal salvation comes with a cost.  And that Jesus was born to pay that cost. To shed the sacrificial blood in our place.   Our understanding of the cost of Christmas, has much more to do with gift giving and lavish celebrations, than it does with blood and sacrifice.   But Christmas unplugged brings us face to face with our own need for forgiveness.

 

Which brings us to  the first miracle of Christmas.  From the very beginning of the story, in the shadows of Eden and the aftermath of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, God has told us time and again that ultimately the pain and the sacrifice, that the blood of forgiveness and redemption,  will not be ours to shed. Forgiveness will not be ours to earn, but rather His to give. That He will send a Savior, the seed of Eve’s disobedience, that will ultimately pay the price, shed the blood of the Covenant and will restore humanity to the paradise that Adam and Eve were created in.   Because in Eden where the Christmas story begins, humanity chose disobedience over obedience, and separation over relationship, but at Bethlehem, God chose obedience over disobedience, and love over separation.  And the long awaited Savior was born. A Savior who would bear the pain of all the centuries of our separation and shed His blood so that once and for all you and I can be forgiven for our disobedience. And Genesis tells us that this was God’s plan all along – conceived in Eden and fulfilled in the manger of Bethlehem.   And miracle of miracles, Christmas does not come because we deserve it. It comes and comes again, because our God is a God of great grace. We may try to cover up our need of a Savior with beautiful decorations and bright lights giving the illusion that all is well in our world and our lives, but if we unplug all the secular trappings of our Christmas celebrations, what we will see is that the Grace of God, that was conceived in the shadows of sin and disobedience in Eden, was delivered as forgiveness in the manger of Bethlehem.   And His grace is the miracle.  That Christmas is a celebration of  Grace that came in the person of Jesus, our long awaited savior.  The greatest gift given to each one of us, not because of our merit but because of God’s love for Adam and Eve, and Mary and Joseph, and you and I.   How appropriate it is that we should begin our celebration of Christmas Unplugged, at this altar celebrating this Sacrament of God’s miraculous Grace.   How appropriate it is that when we celebrate Holy Communion, we thank God for these “gifts of bread and wine”. These are the true gifts of Christmas, the body and blood of Christ in order that we might receive His grace and then become His Grace for the whole world.  So come and celebrate that that which was conceived in Sin, has come full term and been born to be our salvation, a baby Savior, redeemer, delivered through God’s Grace alone. O come, O come Emmanuel, come Lord Jesus and save us today, not because we deserve it, not because of our merit, not because of the grandiose ways we celebrate Christmas,  but because of your marvelous Grace alone.

 

© 2014 St. Luke UMC | Made with love by Mark Walz, Jr..
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