For the Christmas Day message, I am going to share my heart as a pastor, as a person, as a Christ-follower in a very personal way. Often in sermons, I criticize much of 21stcentury upper middle class American life. I criticize the patriotism that sees America as more favored than other people. God loves Koreans, Chinese, Libyans, Mexicans, and everyone else as much as Americans. I criticize American consumerism. We buy too much stuff; consume too high a percentage of the world’s resources. American consumerism and materialism is sinfully unjust. In these ways and others, I am critical.
And yet, I love America. I love being an American. I am fortunate enough to travel overseas, and when I do, I go as a representative of the United States. I do so proudly. I feel a sense of mission; it’s like one of the things I must do in an international airport is represent America well. I don’t always succeed. But it is in my mind.
I especially love American Christmas. I know many of my critiques are especially on display at Christmas time. I heard and radio announcer who was doing a read for a jewelry store say, “Whether you are spending $50 or $50,000 ...” and I didn’t another word. $50,000 for a Christmas gift?? Insane! I say that, I love this morning, coming from the bedroom to the Christmas tree and seeing that Santa has come. I love it.
I love coming to the church and singing these hymns, true worship songs that put the birth of Jesus into story set to music. I love Christmas parties. We had several school Thanksgiving and Christmas events for our boys. I love Christmas lights on people’s homes. Our family drives around night after night to see how the town is lit up, acknowledging that this time of year is special. I wouldn’t trade Christmas in North Carolina in the United States for anything.
What I have discovered this year at Christmas is that all the preaching I have done in my time at HillSong has come back to me. Every spiritual challenge has been thrown upon me in this festive time of feasts, time off from work and school, hustle and bustle, and holiday cheer.
I have repeatedly said we can honor God and worship Him and represent Him in the world by doing our normal tasks with excellence. A simple example is a baker who is also a passionately devoted follower of Jesus honors God by baking good bread. His work is an offering. Similarly in our relationships, we strive for excellence. I want to be a great husband and dad, friend and neighbor for the sake of glorifying God. That has been a wonderfully difficult and rewarding challenge and I am acutely aware of how better I need to be –especially as a husband and dad and pastor.
Another mantra of mine, from this pulpit, is that we are called by Jesus himself to share the good news of salvation and forgiveness of sins. All Christians are called to tell about Jesus. Just a couple of weeks ago, UNC student came in asking what she would need to do to be baptized. As she and I walked through the building, I talked about forgiveness and new life in Christ. It was awesome, but, I don’t do enough of that. I have to improve in answering Jesus’ call to evangelism.
Beyond evangelism and beyond praising God by doing the daily thing of work and personal life with excellence, there other ways my own preaching has come back to me this Christmas. But I won’t go into more detail because the important thing is not for you to hear my confession. The important thing is that upon hearing my own story, you get serious about your own relationship with God. Where do you need to improve?
Do you know why I have become so aware of all I have mentioned? I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about evangelism every Christmas. Each year at this time, I don’t pause and think, “Rob, are you practicing what you preach?” This year though, I can’t think of much else. It is intensified in the joy I feel when I am getting things right and in my disappointment when I fail miserably. Why this year I am so concerned about becoming a better Christ-follower?
It’s the scripture – Psalm 97. The Psalms are the worship book in scripture, so this Advent, as a church, we’ve been praying the Psalms as a worshiping body and hopefully as individuals. Psalm 97 is one of the enthronement Psalms. Most Psalms are laments or praises. Some are categorized as Royal Psalms. The smallest category is the enthronement Psalm. Enthronement Psalms are sung only to God, acknowledging God. The Royal Psalms apply to Jesus, but originally they also applied to Israelite Kings. Enthronement Psalms are only for, to, and about God. When we sing an Enthronement Psalm with Jesus in mind, we’re saying Jesus is God.
We’re also saying Jesus is king, an un-American idea. I began my confession this morning saying how much I love the American Christmas traditions in which I have been raised. When Christmas comes around, I am flooded by happy memories.
As a follower of Jesus, I cannot think of his birth and think of carols and nativity scenes. Those things are wonderful, but the birth of Jesus is first and foremost the story of God come to earth. The eternal one stepped out of the limitless beauty of Heaven and the unbound power and majesty of divinity. God stepped out of godhood and into the fragile, perilous form of a human baby. God put on humanity in its rawest forms.
What did the wise men say when they came to see the baby Jesus? “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews” (Mt. 2:2)? They said “King of the Jews,” but they, Persians, knew this king was a king beyond Israel. They dropped everything in their lives because they knew from gazing at the star and studying the ancient Hebrew texts that this king was like no other. Yes, he was a Jew. Yes, they were Persians living in what today we call Iran. It did not matter. They would drop everything and come to him because was not just a king, but the king.
Today, we know how the story went from there. Jesus grew into a man who embraced children when more respectable people would say, “children should be seen and not heard.” Jesus was a teacher who paused to listen to and heal blind roadside beggars when more important people said the beggars should be silent. Jesus was a revolutionary who defeated evil itself by dying on a cross. And he was and is a King who rules with the power of love instead of the power of the sword or gun.
The way we Americans became a nation was by throwing off the yoke of king in a bloody revolution. We declared ourselves independent, fought, and today have a representative democracy. The idea of a king in America today is absurd.
Yet, in reading Psalm 97, I have felt more than ever, that the birth of Jesus, the season of Christmas, is a reminded that I am first and foremost a child of God. Being an American comes after that. As a child of God, born again in Jesus Christ, I am called to take on the yoke of a king.
My work as a writer of sermons and visitor to hospitals and spiritual counselor and church administrator is to be done at the pleasure of the king. My life as a husband, a dad, a son, a brother, a neighbor, a sports fan, a Carolinian – it is to be lived at the pleasure of the king. At any point, should the king command a change, it is to be made. At any point, should the king interrupt my daily life, I welcome the interruption. At all points, I am mindful that God is always present and I am always to love others as He has loved me and to act as he would have me act.
Of course, I am telling you my intent. There are moments when I succeed. In many others, I come up short. The UNC student I mentioned earlier who came in confessed to some pretty significant sins as she and I walked through the building. Right at the moment she was pouring her heart out, we were in this room, and I was able to point up to the cross and explain that Jesus covers our sins and we are forgiven. Right now, as I tell you my intent to live every moment of life in service to the king and I acknowledge how frequently I come up short, I turn myself to the cross. I am reminded that I am washed in grace.
I am also aware of what Jesus said. A moment ago, I recalled that America threw off the yoke of a king. As Christ-followers we take on the yoke of King Jesus. Do you know what a yoke is? It is a large, heavy wooden brace that connect two oxen together. Then the farmer can come behind and drive the oxen wherever he wants them to go. When we take on the yoke of Jesus, we are enslaved to God. We go wherever King Jesus directs us.
The good news is Jesus said, “Come to me all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”(Mt. 11:28-30). The heavy yoke laid on oxen means heavy work is ahead. The yoke of King Jesus brings rest and revives the soul.
It’s a paradox. The more love we give, the more we have. The more we die to self and give ourselves to Christ, the more life we have. And the closing verses of Psalm 97 become our Christmas confession and our everyday reality.
“Light dawns for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart. Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous, and give thanks to his holy name” (97:11-12)!
The call I have felt to be a better dad and to be better in evangelism and to do it all for the sake of bringing glory to God is invitation to take on Jesus’ easy yoke and light burden. It is the reality that my life is lived in absolute slavery with Jesus as my master, and at the same time there is no freedom like the freedom one has when yoked with Him. To do more is to have more rest. It cannot be understood except by those who know the baby in the manger is the eternal King of all Kings.
Christmas is His day. Every day is His. I am thankful for what a blessing it is to know that, and I am thankful God has, this year, called me to live in that reality.