What Is The Real Present?
Somewhere we lost focus. Many years ago there was a bishop over an area of Asia Minor called Palmyra. This bishop became well-known. He became well known because he stood up against the false teacher, Arius at the council of Nicea. He also became well-known because of what he did in his church and in his community. There was a dad with three daughters. He died. And the three daughters would have been sold into slavery. But this bishop and pastor took these daughters in at great cost to himself and his church. This man was Nicolas, Archbishop of Palmyra. What do we know him as today? Santa Klaus. Somewhere we lost focus. That is our trap as humans, for that is our tendency. And there’s nothing new under the sun. Humans thousands of years ago had the same temptation. We see that in our reading for this morning. In Hebrews 10, we read, “1 The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. 2 Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. 3 But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. 4 It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:1–4 NIV11-GKE)
In the Old Testament God commanded the Jewish people to bring forward offerings. But what happened is their feelings took over their focus. They came to Jerusalem pulling behind them sheep, bulls, and goats. And when they got there they were filled with awe and wonder. They saw the amazing temple and said, this is my temple. Instead of being surrounded by a few worshippers of the Lord, they were surrounded by many. And they said, “this is my people.” And they looked down at that animal and their heart swelled with pride and they thought, “this is my offering.” And the feelings made them lose focus on why they were there. The writer to the Hebrews brings that focus back. Those animals they carried in their arms and pulled behind their backs were not the solution to sin, they were the reminder of sin. They were the promise of the good sacrifice to come, not the sacrifice itself.
They lost their focus because their feelings in their hearts overcame the facts in front of their faces. Isn’t the same true for us? It is ever-so-easy to replace the fact of Christmas with the feelings of Christmas. So what does this look like? We put up red poinsettias and bright lights because it makes us feel right. We eat cookies and cakes because it makes us feel good. We go out and get a tree or bring it up from the basement because that’s what we did when we were children. All of this we do to recapture the feelings of Christmas. Now, before I go any farther, there is nothing wrong with feelings in and of themselves. But when the feelings that surround Christmas cause us to loose focus on Christmas, then it becomes a sin. It becomes a sin in two ways. First, Jesus was not born to make us feel good as if he were a potent wine or a rich cookie. No, instead, the hymn we just sang words it correctly:
Come, O long-expected Jesus, Born to set your people free;
From our sins and fears release us By your death on Calvary.
Just as the goats and bulls in the Old Testament should have been a reminder of their sin, so also, Jesus birth should first of all be a reminder of our sin. But so often we lose focus and conclude that Jesus’ birth is all about good feelings like fancy cookies.
But there’s a second way we fall into sin by replacing the fact of Christmas with the feeling of Christmas. What if you don’t have the proper feelings? How many of remember the immense and intense joy of our Children’s Christmas service? But now, years later those same immense and intense emotions are not the same. Is it real Christmas if I’m not fired up? That’s the trap with losing focus and replacing the fact of Christmas with the feelings surrounding Christmas.
So what’s the real present of Christmas? It’s not frail feelings. That much we know. But what is it? God’s word tells us, “5 Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; 6 with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased.” (Hebrews 10:5–6 NIV11-GKE)
The real present of Christmas is Christ’s humanity. Now, notice where God’s word goes in these words. Usually the present we speak about it Christ’s divinity. Here the present our Father in heaven promises is humanity. That is the present we focus in at Christmas: God gives us a human body to bear sin. I came into this world as a sinner. I cannot kill any animal to pay for that sin. I cannot kill myself or anyone else to pay for my sin. But all of those countless animals in the Old Testament that needed to be killed pointed ahead to Christmas: a human body to bear sin. That, my friends is the real present. But Christ’s humanity gives us another gift: “7 Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll— I have come to do your will, my God.’ ” 8 First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. 9 Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. 10 And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 10:7–10 NIV11-GKE)
An ancient pastor in the church once said that “that which Jesus did not receive, he did not redeem.”1 God gave a human to us as a present to bear our sins. But he also gave us a human to us as a present to obey our God. We so very easily lose focus. We so easily lose focus on the fact of Christmas and focus in on the feelings surrounding Christmas. But Jesus had a human will that was perfect. He not only wanted to obey his Father, he was actually able to doing what his Father commanded completely and continually. And all this he does in your place.
It might be ok to forget who the real St. Nic is. But this morning don’t forget what the real Christmas present is. God gave to us a real human—a human to bear our sins, a human to obey our God. That is the fact that will bring our focus back to where it needs to be. Amen.
1 ⲧⲟⲁⲡⲣⲟⲥⲗⲏⲡⲧⲟⲛⲁⲑⲉⲣⲁⲡⲉⲩⲧⲟⲛ: Gregory Nanzianzen