A matter of life and death (Third Advent 2019)

Why was Jesus born?

Sometimes, when I pose this question, the response I get is some version of “Because we needed a Savior.” And that’s not wrong, as far as it goes.

But that answer is more about Good Friday than Christmas, as if the question were, “Why did Jesus die?” And if our need for a Savior is the only answer to the question of Jesus’ birth, then Christmas becomes a matter of pure practicality: Well, obviously, you can’t die unless you’ve been born first!

So let me shift the question a bit: what’s the connection between Christmas and Easter?

The simplest answer is one word: life. Or even better, two words: new life.

Jesus wasn’t just born to die, he was born to live. That may sound like an obvious thing to say, but it’s important not to take that simple fact for granted. 

In his life and ministry, Jesus demonstrated what human life was meant to be. He showed that it was possible — it is still possible — to live a life characterized by love and compassion, justice and righteousness, even in the midst of such an angry, selfish, broken world.  

And this has implications for how we must think about salvation itself. Yes, we need to be saved from our sins in order to have a life of eternal blessedness. But in the meantime, what? Does salvation have anything to do with how we live before we die?

Of course it does.

“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” Paul tells the Philippians (Phil 2:12, NRSV). This most assuredly does not mean, “Earn your salvation through good works, and be afraid of the God who may erase your name from the Book of Life.”

Rather, it means that the salvation we sometimes take for granted must have its “outworking” in our lives — it should make a difference to how we live.  And God doesn’t leave us to our own resources: through the Holy Spirit, God is himself working in us, not only to do what pleases him, but to want to do what pleases him.  

Then why “fear and trembling”? Well, think about it. Might you not get flustered and tongue-tied in the presence of your favorite celebrity? That’s how we sometimes react to other human beings who stand outside of us.

So what would be the proper response to really grasping the fact that the God who created the universe, who set the stars in motion and knows them all by name, actually works in and through us? 

Oh, my.

Yes: Jesus’ death on the cross purchases a glorious destiny for us, a destiny of eternal resurrection life in the presence of a holy, loving, and gracious God.

But the sending of the Spirit after his death and resurrection empowers a resurrection quality of life now — a life in which we are transformed, bit by bit, day by day, into the image of Jesus.

When we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we celebrate the life that followed, the life that shows us what we can yet be.

God with us, showing us the way.