On the wall in my church study, I have a precious photograph that was taken in a hospital room a couple of years ago. It's a picture of a young couple from this church. He's still wearing the surgical suit that is required in delivery rooms, and she's sitting up in bed. Clearly, the two are exhausted. Yet there's a joyous sparkle in their facesexpressions of peace, relief, pride, humility, and thankfulness all rolled up togetherbecause in their arms, wrapped up in white blankets, is a newborn son weighing 11 pounds, 1 ounce, and 23 inches long. Nothing in this world was more important to them at that moment than their baby. That's the way it is when a child is born.
I do not know each of you gathered in this place tonight, and I could never know everything about your life. I do know that at one moment in your life, you, too, were the most important person in the world to many people: your mother and father, your family, and the medical people who had waited and prayed for nine long months. They celebrated and rejoiced that you had come into the world.
Nothing can equal the birth of a child. Nothing should. A baby's birth is God's statement that the human race is worth continuing. Would that be true for a little child who was born and immediately given up for adoption? It would be a little different, wouldn't it? From the relationships I've had with families who've adopted children, I can only say that their joy is every bit as great over the birth of that child.
Recently, my mother told my own children the story of the night when their dad was born. On that night, my father and two older brothers unexpectedly had to transfer some horses, and spent the night riding in the October moonlight for fifteen miles. Mother told my children about her restlessness and concern as the labor pains set in. She knew all of her men were somewhere out there in the darkness on horseback, oblivious to the drama that was developing at home.
We never tire of the story of the day or night when we were born. It's the big moment in our history, when people laughed, cried, and hugged one another. They celebrated; they smoked cigars; they drank champagne. They forgot all their problemsat least for a whilejust because of our birth.
Tonight, we celebrate not just our own birth, but, more importantly, the birth of Jesus. Here's another birth story we never tire of hearing, although we know the details by heart. The account of your birth and the story of how I was born will soon be forgotten by most people, but not Jesus' birth story. He is the Son of God.
In many ways, Jesus' story is like yours and mine. Mary, his mother, endured the same discomfort and uncertainty about her unborn child that your mother did, and when he came, it was painful for him and for her. He was a helpless infant who needed to be sheltered, fed, clothed, and cleaned, just like all of us. But from the beginning, the very beginning, it was clear he was different from you and me. The hymn writer says it so well in this carol:
Gentle Mary laid her child, lowly in a manger.
There he lay, the undefiled, to the world a stranger.
Angels sang about his birth. Wise men sought and found him.
Heaven's star shone brightly forth, glory all around him.
Shepherds saw the wondrous sight, heard the angels singing.
All the plains were lit that night; all the hills were ringing.
Son of God of humble birthbeautiful the story.
Praise his name in all the earth. Hail the king of glory.
God's own Son, born of a virginthat claim is clear. The authors dare not have made up a tale about that most personal part of the story. Though Mary was his mother, and her body nurtured the seed that became the Son, Joseph was not the father. God, by a miracle of holy conception, put his very own seed into the womb of this maiden that had never slept with a man, and thereby God entered the human race. Jesus was wholly God and wholly man.
In the middle of the city of London is Trafalgar Square. Atop a tall pillar, there is a statue of Lord Nelson. He's so high up that it's impossible to distinguish any of his features. So, a little over forty years ago, a new statuean exact replica of the statue of Nelsonwas erected at eye level, so that everyone could see it close up. This is what God was doing at Christmas, coming down from the heights of heaven in the person of Jesus so that we might know what he's like at eye level.
Jesus was born just as we were born. He lived and grew just as we did, except that at every stage he showed us how to live. The life he lived was complete. He had no regrets. He had no sins. He lived this earthly life from a heavenly perspective. He saw as God in heaven sees. He spoke as God in heaven speaks. And his words are the very words of God.
When we look at Jesus' life, we see so much in it that attracts us, don't we? We see his wisdom, his power, and his consistencyhis insight, his genius, his strength, his force of character, his courage, his sense of command, his willingness to sacrifice, his goodness, his holiness, and his wholeness.
Jesus is unique. There have been many great men and women throughout history, but only one Jesus. No life has so influenced the world as his. World leaders and famous people come and go. Their flames burn very brightlyRonald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Manuel Noriega, Nadia Comaneci. But eventually their flame dies down. Not so with Jesus. His flame is still burning as brightly as ever because he still is. He still lives.
We need him. Our lives are incomplete without him. That's why we're here tonight. We need him, and the message of Christmas is that we can have him. No, he can have us. He's too mighty for us to have him. How does it happen? How does the one who's the very Son of God become real in our lives?
Before we can understand the present, we must see how God was at work at the very beginning. In the first chapter of the Bible we find these words:
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth. The Earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters."
In the very beginning of everything that we know, the Spirit of God was at work. God's Spirit brought about the creation of all things. And then the same word that's used for the work of the Holy Spirit in Creation is used by Saint Luke when he speaks of God's Spirit coming upon Mary. The Spirit of God "overshadowed Mary," Luke says, and he put life in herthe life of Jesus, the life of God himself.
In the beginning the Holy Spirit had put the same spiritual life into mankind. The presence of God was alive within man, woman, and child. This is what it means when the Bible says, "He created them in his own image, male and female." God was present in man's life. Man could know God and walk with God and talk with God. But man turned away from God. He disobeyed God and trampled upon the Spirit of God, so God withdrew his presence. The Spirit of God no longer dwelt within men. God didn't take away his love or his concern, but the life of God no longer was alive in men and women. People were just people.
And people have made a mess of things, haven't they? Haven't we? There have been many bright lights. There have been many wonderful folks, but by and large we human beings have wasted and squandered our God-given natural resources. We've made selfishness and war the most dominant, recurring theme in the world's history.
I think that's what the great American statesman Bernard Baruch had in mind years ago when he appeared as a witness before a Senate investigative committee. When he was asked to suggest what Congress might do to prevent the periodic ups and downs of the nation's economy, Baruch said, "Pass a law changing human nature, and make it retroactive back to the Garden of Eden."
All of us are born naturally selfish, grasping for ourselves and for our own. We see things first and foremost from our own perspective. Looking out for ourselves is the most natural thing in the world. This is why we have to have laws, police, prisons, and armies: to preserve the peace and protect the vulnerable. We're all as different from Jesus as day is from night. He's the Son of God. We're just people.
A new story: Christ in us
But that's not the end. That's just the first step. The second, the final step, is this: The same Holy Spirit who was present at creation and who came upon Mary, bringing to life the Son of God, is still present in the worldeven among us tonight. Because of that, we can know God ourselves.
I know in America almost everybody says, "Certainly, I know God. I talk to God all the time. I believe in Jesus and God. I pray. I do good things all the time." But Jesus said that unless the same Holy Spirit who came upon Mary comes to live within a person, that person does not know God and does not have God's life within him.
Let me just give a simple example. A couple of summers ago, my two boys and I bought a lawn mower. They used this nice lawn mower to mow people's lawns in the summer and earn a little spending money. It's one of those lawn mowers that are made to operate on a mixture of gasoline and oil together. It will operate on gasoline alone, but if it doesn't have the oil, it's just a matter of time before it burns up. The oil enables the lawnmower to run as it is intended to run.
Now, the coming of the Spirit of God into your life is like putting oil in the machine. We're made by God in such a way that, if his Spirit is living inside of us, we live life to the full, and we live forevereven beyond the grave. But without Christ in our life, we sputter. We never achieve our potential. We eventually break down altogether.
We do the best we can. We eat, drink, work, play, and breathe. We take in information and process it all. Some of us do it much better than others. But without the presence of God dwelling in our lives, it's like running the mower on gasoline alone, without oil. It works for a while, and then it breaks down. Many people, even in the church, are living just that way. Perhaps you have been yourself.
Saint Paul was praying for some friends. Let me read what he prayed. He said, "I fall down on my knees and pray to the Father that out of his glorious, unlimited resources, he will give you the mighty inner strengthening of his Holy Spirit. And I pray," Paul said, "that Christ will be more and more at home in your hearts, living within you as you trust in him."
Here's how it happens. Jesus said a change must take place in your life that is every bit as dramatic and important as your own physical birth. In fact, he said it's like being born, except that whereas our birth was physical, the birth that he makes possible is spiritual.
Maybe this is what Tennyson had in mind when he was frustrated with himself, and he cried out, "Oh, that a man might arise in me, that the man I am might cease to be!"
In a sense that's what happens. It's not really that the person we are ceases to be. Instead, the presence of the Lord Christ comes into our lives and helps us become the persons we want to be. You see, there's a place inside each of us, the center, and it was made for God. Either he comes to dwell there, or someone or something else dwells there. Only you know who is thereyou and God.
Many things may dwell there in the central place that is the most important of all. It may be that your family is there. Or your reputation. Or your work. Or your career. It may be a relationship with another person. It may be pleasure. It may be knowledge. Many things can become God to us. But only when Christ becomes God to us, and when we give him the first place in our life, does this open the door and allow the presence of God to come in and dwell in the central place of our lives.
You may have done many wonderful things, helped many people, prayed, gone to church, worked tirelessly for good. It doesn't matter. Your life is incomplete and not running right until you have begged God's forgiveness for putting any other thing before him, and decided that above all you want to be God's man, God's woman, God's daughter, or God's son, and asked him to take over your lifeall of it, lock, stock, and barrel.
Just a little while ago, somebody handed me this statement by Mother Teresa. She said, "Pray for me, that my concern for the poor will not distract me from Jesus Christ."
When Christ is at the center of your life and you ask him to take that central place, there's a celebration in heaven that is even more wonderful than the celebration that took place when you were born on Earth. Jesus told his friends that all the angels in heaven have a party when one single person turns from his own way and gives himself to God. The same angelic host that rejoiced at the Bethlehem birth of Jesus rejoices when you ask him to fill your life with his presence and make you his person.
When you were born, you and your mother did a wonderful thing together. She, through her body, let you know that it was time to be born. And you, tiny little person that you were, said, "Okay," and you were born.
God works in the same way with spiritual birth. He lets you know when it's time. He says, "Come to me. Let me take away those things in your life that should not be there: the pride that is unwilling to say, 'God, you have your way, I'm number two;' that unwillingness to forgive; that desire to be right; the need to be number one; the relationship that isn't the way it ought to be with those mixed-up priorities; that temper; that jealousy; that lust."
God says, "Let me take these things away and bring into your life the Spirit of Christ. Believe in me, confess these things, and then let me wash them away and fill you with my presence. I will never leave you. As you follow me and trust me and obey me, I will begin to make you whole. And what I begin to do in your life here and now, I'll complete in you throughout eternity."
Over the last few days, you have been concerned with many important things, I'm sure. You've been thinking about loved ones and how to honor them at Christmas. You've been thinking and praying about the poor, the cold, the homeless. But right at this moment, I just want you to think about yourself and your God. Anything else in life is secondary to that right now. Think about turning your life over to him. Allow him to fill it with his very own presence. It's the most important thing you can ever do.
Perhaps some of you here tonight have never done this. Many of you have. For those who have, I ask you right now to pray for those in this room who are wrestling tonight with what I have said and with its meaning for their lives. Being born is such a simple process. We simply cooperate with our mother. So it is with spiritual birth. We simply cooperate with our heavenly Father. He says to us, "This is the time to let me come into your life and take control."
Then we say, "Yes. Yes, Lord, I believe, and I give all of myself that I can to all that I know of you."
Well, I'm done now. In just a minute we'll stand and say the Creed. Then we'll kneel to pray for the world and for ourselves. I invite you to do these things tonight. You can make these actions of standing and kneeling, speaking and praying, your own personal actions of commitment to Christ in a way perhaps you have never done before. Consider the words as you say them, and make them your own. Amen.