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“GOD’S PRESENT TO NAUGHTY CHILDREN”
Coal! Coal under the tree, coal in the stockings, coal coming out of your ears, coal! That’s what children are threatened with every Christmas. “If you misbehave, if you fight with your brothers and sisters, if you don’t clean your room, if you get less than stellar grades, if you don’t do what you’re told, if you’re naughty, you’re getting coal on Christmas!” Of all the things one could threaten with, we threaten with coal! Have any of you ever actually given your children coal on Christmas? And when I say “actually given,” I don’t mean as a joke that brings a couple of laughs; I mean, did you give no gifts to your children on Christmas morning other than coal? Certainly not, even though they might deserve nothing based on their behavior! Children are taught early on that if they are naughty, which all children are at some point, that they will receive no gifts on Christmas which they will be able to enjoy. Instead, they’re promised coal, which you can light on fire and watch it become a pile of ashes. Sounds like fun! And yet, on Christmas morning, when they wake up and their eyes are still blurry, they hurry to the tree to find...not an ounce of coal, not ashes, but an abundance of wonderful gifts. I often have used that picture to illustrate the biblical concept of “grace.” Grace is the gift-giving action of God. And though we have shown ourselves to be naughty children, breaking every one of our heavenly Father’s commandments persistently, what he presents to us on this great festival day is not ashes, but a beautiful gift: the Christ-child in the manger, that shocking, unexpected and utterly needful gift, which has caused us to burst into song today. “Joy to the World,” we sing! “Glory to God in the Highest!” That gift, placed ever so tenderly and lovingly into this utterly sin-depraved, naughty world, lying ever so pitifully in a manger, gives us exactly what we need: freedom from sin, true and lasting peace and life without end. What better reason could there possibly be to gather together and rejoice this Christmas Day – and to urge others to do the same? Coal! Ashes! Ruins! That’s how the prophet describes Jerusalem in verse 9, and rightly so. How spiritually depraved the people of Israel had become, and they would receive a portion of recompense for their unbelief. The naughty children of God, who were chosen by grace, received a bit of coal and ashes for their transgressions. The city they treasured, the homes they built, the wealth they enjoyed, the land they inherited via promise, all ashes! Now, the prophecy here in Isaiah foretells two times when Jerusalem would lie in ashes: the first is an exilic destruction where the people would be led away from their homes to a foreign land to live in poverty, slavery and depravity for a period of about 70 years; and the second, the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Jerusalem, their pride and joy in ashes – and the people only had themselves to blame! But even they, the ashes and ruins of Jerusalem, are told to rejoice! By inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Isaiah speaks shocking words in verse 9: “9 Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.” Burst into song because of comfort and redemption – those were reasons for the naughty children of Israel to rejoice, and those are the same reasons that you and I rejoice on this festival day, because God has NOT given us what we truly deserve! Isaiah 52:9
When we see Israel’s spiritual depravity in our hearts, when we look into the mirror of the law and see how similar we are to every other naughty child under heaven, we are no better and no more worthy of blessing than the next person – prideful, greedy, selfish, lazy, and having a propensity towards false piety and false security, with such behavior what should we expect from our heavenly Father? What we should expect, based on our behavior is – coal...ashes...everlasting ruin, no reason to be happy, no reason to burst into song, no reason to have hope. How good our God is, who wasn’t willing to leave us in the pit of sadness and despair, mired in hopelessness. He chose to act in an extraordinarily generous and gracious way, much in the same way that parents treat their children on Christmas morning, but to an even greater extent. How do parents treat their children on Christmas morning, you ask? They do not hold their children’s numerous and grievous faults against them and base the gift-giving on the child’s worthiness to receive whatever is under the tree and in the stockings. Instead, the generosity of the parents shines forth brilliantly, even when the behavior of the children receiving the gifts isn’t so glowing. Children don’t receive coal, like they probably should. Instead, they receive costly and beautiful gifts, not because they are so great, but because the parents are so loving and gracious. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7, Jesus takes that thought and applies it to our heavenly Father: 9 “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give
him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts...”
As generous and gracious as parents are on Christmas morning to offer gift after gift to children that have repeatedly broken trust, how much more generous and gracious is our heavenly Father who we have dishonored, who we have rebelled against, who we have disappointed and embarrassed. And yet, this Christmas morn, what lies before us in the precious Christmas gospel? What does he offer to you and to me, the most undeserving of recipients? Not ashes. Not eternal judgment. He give us a beautiful present, a gift, wrapped in humility, veiled in lowliness, the gift of Jesus...Immanuel – God with us, a gift so shocking, so unexpected and so perfect that we can’t help but sing “Joy to the World, the Lord is come!” We can’t help it, we can’t help but be overwhelmed with joy today - because the child lying lowly in a manger on Christmas morn is the promised gift who would save the world from their sins. Let’s not forget today what this gift is and what it’s all about. If we look at the Christ-child as just a cute baby, as just a nice holiday picture to have up in our yards or in our homes, then we have missed the point of the gift, and we have robbed ourselves of the beauty of the Christmas gospel. This child is God – emptied of all that rightly belongs to him as divine so that we can have what doesn’t rightly belong to us – heaven. This is God in the flesh – under the law that he established so that he can acquit us of our crimes against it. This is our King – the highly exalted Divine Majesty who chose in love to serve rather than be served, giving his life as the ransom for many. This is Jesus – the Immortal preparing himself as the Ultimate Sacrifice: one perfect life given over to terrible death, to condemnation in order to rescue an entire race of sinners from everlasting perdition. This is Christ – all the fullness of the deity in bodily form and the world’s only hope for restoration and glory That’s what makes this gift so special and what gives us reason to be joyful today! Of all the gifts that you received today, or throughout the Christmas season, truly none can compare to this gift, because the Christ-child is so underserved, and at the same time, so needed. What should we have received? Coal! Ashes! That’s what naughty children get, right? Not from God! No ashes for God’s children! Instead, Jesus – and all the costly gifts that he brings that we would never be able get for ourselves – pardon, peace, and life everlasting. “Joy to the World! The Lord is come!” Amen.
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