From the Reformed Quarterly Winter 1987 Bulletin.
At our house at Christmas we put on our mantel some beautiful figurines to form a manger scene. There are Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus. There are a donkey and a lamb. They are Goebel figurines, precious because they’re not made any more. They were given to us by a member of our family and are special to us. But last year, during the night, a wreath hanging over the mantel fell and knocked the figurines off. They tumbled onto the hearth and were smashed. Sydney, my wife, almost cried when she saw them, but then she picked up every tiny, splintered piece and began to glue them back together again. Now, from across the room, you can’t tell anything is wrong. But if you get up close, you see the flaws. The figurines are not perfect any more. There are cracks that show, imperfections that are visible.
All of us are like the Goebel figurines on my mantel. We are not perfect any more. When you get up close, you discover warts and flaws and imperfections. Do you remember the story about the woman taken in adultery? The Jews were ready to stone her, but Jesus said to them, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast a stone at her” (John 8:7). And then we read, “And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last” (John 8:9). I am convicted by my own conscience. Are you? When you get close to me you discover flaws, cracks, and imperfections.
I read a story once about a woman who went to a free city clinic for a chest x-ray, signing a paper certifying that she was unable to pay for it. After the doctor had studied the film, he called the poor woman into his office. “The x-ray shows that you have a terrible condition of the heart,” he said. Then he showed her the x-ray. There on the film was outlined the coin purse she had pinned inside her dress, filled with money.
We may think that our flaws, our sins, our brokenness are hidden, but God, who looks upon our inward hearts, knows us for what we really are. God created man perfect. But during some dark night of the soul, catastrophe struck. Sin with all of its brokenness shattered what God meant for us to be. The question is this: are those cracks and flaws and imperfections important to God? They certainly are, and Christmas is His answer to our brokenness. When willfulness has knocked us off the mantel and shattered us on the hearth of sin, Christmas tells us that God’s heart is broken and that He wants to pick up the pieces and put us back together again.
CHRISTMAS IS FOR EVERYBODY
I once called on a man who wouldn’t let me in his door. “You Christians think God cares about people like me,” he said, “but I don’t believe it. How can God know or care what is going on in my life?” I can understand how he felt. There have been times in my life when I have felt all alone, times when I felt cut off from God and wondered if He knew or cared what was happening to me. Have you ever felt that way? But Christmas is for everybody. God cares about every single individual. And one day when He grew up, that Christmas baby of Bethlehem would say, “Not a sparrow falls to the ground without my Father’s knowledge. You are worth more than many sparrows” (Luke 12: 6,7).
So the whole point of Christmas is not family times, or family celebrations, as important as they are. No, the point of Christmas is to say to each person, “You are important to God. He cares for you. And here in the manger is proof.
CHRISTMAS TEACHES TRUST
Because God cares for us so much, Christmas teaches us that we can trust God. Can you trust God when your child or your spouse is dying with cancer? Can you trust God when your baby is born mentally retarded? When you discover that your mate is having an affair and your marriage is collapsing about you, can you trust God then? When an illness has eaten up your financial reserves and you don’t know what the future holds, is God trustworthy? You see, life doesn’t always work out the way we want or wish. Indeed, life can sometimes be very, very hard. But what are we trusting God for? Are we trusting Him to make things turn out the way we want? Are we trusting Him to do what we think is best? Are we trusting Him to say “yes” to all of our prayers? If that is trusting God, then God isn’t trustworthy. You can’t depend on Him to do things your way.
But the Bible says that we can trust God to love us. For example, can your children trust you to love them? Does that mean giving them everything they want? Does it mean giving in to their every request, supporting their immature judgment about what they need or want? Does it mean never correcting them or disciplining them? No, loving our children sometimes demands the tough love of discipline and the substitution of our more mature judgment for their wants and wishes. So with God. We may not understand the things that happen to us in life. We may not know why bad things happen or sorrow comes, but one thing we always know: we can trust God to love us. All we have to do is look at the manger, and we know how much He cares.
We sing a hymn entitled, “The Love of God,” written by F.M. Lehman. I have read that he did not write the last verse to his hymn, but that he found it written on the wall of a small room in a mental institution. There, in the worst of circumstances, some lonely inmate still trusted God and wrote these words: “Could we with ink the ocean fill, And were the skies of parchment made, Were every blade of grass a quill, And every man a scribe by trade, To write the love of God above, Would drain the ocean dry. Nor could the scroll contain the whole, Though stretched from sky to sky.”
That’s how much God loves you and me. And the manger holding the baby Jesus is the proof.
CHRISTMAS MEANS FORGIVENESS
Christmas teaches us is that God wants to heal our brokenness. The incredible good news of Christmas is that God wants to do something about our imperfections. He wants to heal us, to mend our flaws, our brokenness. He wants to take the fragments of our lives and glue them back together again.
Last year I was very ill, several times near death. During that critical time the Psalms became very important to me. I think that was because the Psalms represent people at prayer. Sometimes they are happy and their prayers are filled with praise, such as Psalm 150. But more often than not, the Psalms are the prayers of people who are hurting, or who are desperate, or who are persecuted, or who are dreadfully ill. I think that is why the Psalms mean so much to us in times of trouble.
One Psalm that became especially meaningful to me was Psalm 7. The first two verses tell God how the writer is being treated badly by his enemies. Then, in the next three verses he says, “O Lord, my God, if I have done (evil), if there is wrong in my hands, if I have requited my friends with evil or plundered my enemy without cause, let the enemy pursue me and overtake me, and let him trample my life to the ground and lay my soul in the dust” (Psalm 7:3-5).
When I read that, I cried out, “Lord, I can’t pray a prayer like that.” I said, “Lord, I have done evil, and there is wrong in my hands. I have requited my friends with evil, and I have plundered my enemy. How can I pray to be trampled to the ground if I am guilty when I know I am?”
But you know, a strange thing happened. The Lord told me that I could, indeed, pray that prayer. And do you know why? Because He told me I was forgiven. My sin was paid for. My brokenness was healed. I wasn’t guilty any more.
That is what Christmas is all about. It isn’t just a baby who was born who was the Son of God. No, across the cradle there falls the shadow of a cross, because Jesus was born to die. He was born to die that whoever believes in Him might not perish but have eternal life. Christmas is never just soft, warm fuzzies. No, Christmas is tough love because that lovely baby has come to take our place and die our death. Those tiny hands and feet are to be pierced with nails, that soft baby body is to be pierced with a sword, that tender little brow is to run with blood where the thorns press in.
Christmas must have broken the heart of God, but that’s how much He loved you and me and the whole world.
That morning when we came down and found our Goebel figurines smashed on the hearth, Sydney picked up the pieces and put them back together again. That’s what God wants to do for you. But as Sydney put the pieces together again, she made a discovery. The figurine of the Baby Jesus was broken, too. And that is what Christmas and the cradle are all about. Yes, His body was broken and His blood shed for us, that we might live. Christmas is the beginning of a tragedy, the tragedy of the death of the Son of God, leading to the victory of the resurrection and our salvation. For our sakes, he was broken that our brokenness might be healed.
“But He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5,6).