You’re probably wondering if I have Easter mixed up with Christmas. Well, today is the last Sunday of the year, the church year that is, the church calendar. Next week is the first Sunday in the 4 Sundays of Advent. Advent, the time when we focus on the first coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Therefore, the first Sunday of Advent is also the first Sunday of the church year. So with us being thankful last week, and baby Jesus next week, this is the perfect opportunity to focus on what is actually most important.
Yes, this Sunday’s message is crucial to understanding the weeks ahead of us. You know what you are going to hear about in the next month, in sermons, songs, decorations, and the symbols all around you. You will hear about the baby Jesus, born in a manger, come to bring peace to the earth. You will get cards in the mail that proclaim, “Joy to the World.” You will hear songs that tell about that Silent Night in the Little Town of Bethlehem. You will see manger scenes. Trees will go up which represent the eternal life that Jesus came to bring. Christmas is a magical time for many people, filled with peace, joy, and love. But we’re not there yet, we’re here at the Sunday before Advent season begins, and this Sunday gives us the real meaning behind it all.
Today, before we sing the lovely carols, before we get to the beginning of Jesus’ life, we have to wrap up the life of Jesus from the year before. What does all of this mean? Why did Jesus come to the earth in the first place? For many people, their entire encounter with Jesus Christ will revolve around the events that will be remembered in the upcoming month.
They will remember the beautiful story of a virgin giving birth to a precious child. They will respect the husband who was willing to give his wife the benefit of the doubt and bear the shame of the questions surrounding the birth of his son. People will consider the visitors who came to see the child: the common shepherds and the wise men. To the majority of the people in the world, the story of Jesus is just that: a pleasant story, a myth even. A man was born under incredible circumstances to bring a message of joy and peace to a difficult world.
A man lived and urged us all to live better lives. To many, Jesus is up there with Buddha, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Abraham Lincoln; legends who urged us to a better place of existence. The Jesus that most people will know as the church year begins will never grow up: to many, he will forever remain the child in the manger.
Yes, there will be a manger scene over there. The figurines will be carefully placed in it. Jesus won’t be in the little manger until Christmas. Then in about a month, we will pack it all up and baby Jesus will be carefully packed away in the container, simply stored away. In the hearts of many people the same thing will happen this month. Jesus will be taken out of storage for a month, but when he is placed back in storage he will still be a little baby in a manger with no threat to the world as we know it.
At the end of the church year, though, let’s remember the rest of his life. Let’s remember his love for God’s word, even at the age of 12 he was wise in the temple. Remember his love for everyone he met, from the lowly fishermen to the rich young ruler who couldn’t let go of his money. We remember his compassion for the sick, the lonely, the sinner, and the lost. We remember his miracles; how he walked on the water, calmed the storm, fed the multitude, healed the sick, and turned water into wine. We remember the passion that he had for so many things: he could weep openly, laugh heartily, and rant and rave at the self-righteous hypocrites. We remember the tender things, the meals he shared with his disciples, the hours he spent in prayer, the intimate talks with his disciples.
But most of all, here at the end of his life, we have to remember the reason he came to earth. He wasn’t just a healer or just a preacher or just a good example or just a prophet. He was a sacrificial lamb. He was born to die. The plan for his life from the very beginning ended up at the cross; anything less would not have been sufficient. The head that bowed in prayer would be crowned with thorns.
The mouth that spoke such love and peace would be twisted in pain and agony. The heart that beat with such compassion would be pierced with a Roman spear. The hands that gave sight back to the blind would be driven through with spikes. The feet that walked so many miles to bring good news would be pierced. The voice that called the dead from the grave would cry out to God for mercy.
I would apologize for being such a downer so close to Christmas, but we know that his life was not the end of the story either. Here at the end of the church year we don’t end with a horrible death. Jesus’ life did not end on a sad note, nor does the church year. No, the last message of Jesus life is not just a wonderful life that began in a manger, and it’s not a tragic life that ended on a cross either.
No, the last sermon for the year has to end where many think his life began, in a cave. Some believe the animals at Jesus’ birth were in a cave. After the cross, Jesus was believed to be placed in a cave, but he would only be there a couple of days. We must remember on this end of the church year day that the last word of Jesus life is one of resurrection.
Jesus’ life is not just about a beautiful, cute story of his birth, or about a wonderful man who preached great philosophy and touched many lives as an example to all of us. Jesus’ life is not about the tragic death of a martyr. No, Jesus’ life is all about a glorious resurrection, the victory over death for all mankind. Jesus’ life, the Good News of the Gospel, is in the defeat of death and sin. The message that we have to rejoice over is not that Jesus was born, but that he died and rose again. God became man, died the death we deserved, and rose as the first fruits from the grave. Without this truth, we have nothing to celebrate in this coming month.
Listen to the Paul’s summation in 1 Corinthians 15:
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
1 Corinthians chapter 15 Paul gives the summation of all that the church believes and hopes in: Jesus died for our sins, he was buried, and he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. Incredibly, he says that this is the core of what the believer has taken their stand on. This is the Gospel by which we are saved, if we hold firmly to this truth. The birth of Jesus, as important, miraculous, and astounding as it was, was only the first step on the path to his resurrection and ours. The he details the witnesses, a bunch of them.
How important is the resurrection to the believer? How crucial is it to our hope and joy? He goes on in verses 12-19:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
How important is the resurrection to the believer? Without it, Paul says, we are of all people most to be pitied. Why? Because we have placed our hope in something that won’t happen. We would be worse than those who have no hope at all, because we have placed our hope in something so glorious and incredible that it surpasses all of our understanding. We would have sacrificed everything in this life for no more than a fairy tale. We would have prayed to a God who was not there. Followed commandments based on nothing.
The Resurrection is so crucial to our faith that without it our faith is futile, our lives are worthless, our hope is hopeless. All of our preaching and all of your faith is useless. If Christ was not raised then he was just a martyr, a philosopher, a clever magician. But if he was raised…oh, if he was raised then that is all the difference. If he was raised then we know that death will be defeated, that our faith is not in vain, that our hope is secure, that the new life we celebrate at Christmas is only the beginning of the eternal life which is to come.
If Christ is raised from the dead then we have something to live for, something to die for, something to celebrate. During this season, during this busyness it’s way too easy to lose sight of the end of Jesus life as we celebrate the beginning at Christmas. In the midst of our honoring of the cute little sweet baby Jesus, without the resurrection of Christ we have no reason to celebrate.
Without the resurrection, Jesus’ birth would be a tragedy when you consider the death that he died. But when we consider the empty tomb of Christ’s resurrection, we know the rest of the story and we rejoice.
We need to take time in our celebration of the Advent season to reflect on the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When you tell the Christmas story, make sure that you include the good news that the baby who was born here on earth is no longer on this earth because he has ascended into heaven following his resurrection. Take every opportunity to tell those around you that the reason for the season is not just Jesus, but the risen Jesus.
When you see a Christmas tree or a wreath or any other decoration, let it remind you that your savior has risen from the dead and is preparing even now to return to earth to bring eternal life to the living and the dead. And whatever you do, don’t miss out on this glorious Gospel… if you don’t know Christ, know this: there is no joy in Christmas for those who don’t know Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
You can not truly celebrate Christ coming to earth as a baby if you are not prepared to meet him when he returns as a victorious King. The reason we celebrate Christmas is because we celebrate a risen Lord who is returning soon. If your joy of Christmas does not include the joy of the resurrection of Jesus and the hope of your own resurrection when Christ returns then it is meaningless. So, if you know Jesus and call him Lord, then share the source of your joy with those you celebrate with in this upcoming season. Proclaim his resurrection as you celebrate his birth.