“But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.” (Gal. 4:4-7, NIV)
Here we are on what the liturgical calendar calls “The First Sunday after Christmas.” After weeks–perhaps months—of anticipation, another Christmas has come and gone (my 56th, in fact!). Having experienced this cycle so often—and through so many different phases of life—I find myself marking the transition more and more every year. The passing of another Christmas often brings with it a bit of letdown. There is something very special about the expectancy which leads up to Christmas, especially for children and those child-like adults who never lose their enthusiasm for the season. The excitement of anticipation makes those days following the holiday all the more bittersweet.
Perhaps you have certain family traditions you observe duirng the annual cycle of Advent through to Christmas Day. For our family, Advent has long been marked by the moving of cute little bear through a pleasant Victorian house printed on a fabric hanging. He’s moved from room to room each day, suspended on buttons at each location, looking for Christmas until he finally arrives at the beautifully decorated tree.
Another family tradition of ours is watching Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol.” We’ve seen all the film and TV versions countless times over the years (the “Muppets” being our current family favorite). Everyone is familiar with this classic story of Ebenezer Scrooge and the visiting spirits who help him find redemption. There’s a scene that takes place early in the story when Scrooge’s nephew drops by the counting house to wish his uncle a “Merry Christmas,” only to be met with an iconic “Bah! Humbug!”
What follows is a brief back and forth on the merits of the seasons and Scrooge’s final protest, “Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer . . . . If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”
“Uncle!” pleads the nephew.
“Nephew!” Scrooge replies. “Keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.”
“But you don’t keep it.”
“Let me leave it alone, then. Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you!”
The nephew’s response to this brings us to the point of today’s message. Listen carefully.
“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
Scrooge’s nephew makes an important observation here that is omitted from the various TV and film versions of this tale. It is somewhat awkwardly phrased, so it is easy to forgive the omission from any performance script. What Dickens points out here, almost in passing, is nonetheless very important for us to remember. While we are blessed every year by the “spirit” of the season—the goodness, kindness, forgiveness, charity, and fellowship the nephew speaks of—these things are inseparable from the “sacred name and origin” from which this “spirit” flows. In fact, none of the good things we associate with Christmas can truly ever exist “apart from that”—“that” being the Reality of Christ’s coming into this world, the Incarnation of God the Son, in order to make a way for all people to be redeemed.
In Gal. 4:4 we’re reminded of the importance of the world-transforming event we’ve just celebrated and profound personal implications it has for each of us. As various translations have it, “In the Fullness of Time”; “At Just the Right Time”; “At the set time” . . . “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.”
In the opening verses of the previous chapter, Paul has been challenging the Galatians confusion the place of the law in relation to the promise of new life which comes through faith in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:1-4). Under the law, we are all in bondage to the consequences of our sinful nature. Obedience to the law (being good people, doing good things) can never justify us before a Righteous God. In an odd sort of way, Scrooge’s refusal to see the point of “doing good” at Christmas is rooted in his own lack of the faith which brings the “good” to all “good deeds.”
So why was the law given if it could not save? Paul tells us in Gal. 3:19-25 that it came “because of our transgression.” Because of our sinful natures, we can never know God rightly. The law “is our guardian,” preserving us from ourselves until the time would come when we could be fully restored to right relationship with our Father. The law steers us in the right direction, but it never can bring us to our ultimate destination as sons and daughters of God. Through Christ alone can we know Him rightly.
“In Christ Jesus,” Paul concludes, “we are all children of God through faith.” This great blessing of “our adoption to sonship” (Ch. 4) is ours only because “At just the right time, god sent his son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law.”
That is the ultimate blessing of Christmas. Ebenezer Scrooge only learned this by having three spirits visit him (at their appointed times!) and show him the consequences of man’s sinful nature; consequences he could never escape on his own. They guided him toward an understanding of the True Spirit of Christmas, and that made all the difference in his life. And Scrooge’s nephew reminds us that all of the good things we associate with this season only exist because Christ came “at the appointed time” to fulfill God’s promise.
As we come back to this special time, year after year, we remember and celebrate the great blessing of our own salvation and of the blessed hope given to a lost and dying world. If we keep that in mind, no Christmas is ever just “another Christmas, come and gone.” May we all like Scrooge, honor Christmas in our hearts, and try to keep it all the year.” And may it be said of us, as him, that we know how to keep Christmas well when it comes around again!