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Christmas Day

December 25th, 2010


Isaiah 52:9

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!
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.