Here we are, Christmas Eve 2012. That must mean the world didn’t end on December 21st; that’s a good thing! But December 21st is still an important date. It’s the 1st the day of winter, the shortest day of the year for the northern hemisphere, the day the North Pole is tilted the farthest away from the sun. I’m no scientist, but I do believe we can thank Nicolai Copernicus for helping us understand the reason for our seasons, and other truths about our planet’s place in the universe.
In the 1500’s, Copernicus proposed that the sun, not the earth, was the center of our solar system. His theory was so radical he was condemned as a heretic by the Roman Catholic Church and buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Poland. In 2004 they found his remains, and in 2010 he was reburied as a hero by a polish priest! Today everybody understands how important it is to know the real center of our solar system. After all, understanding the center changes everything.
It’s the same way with Christmas. *The other day our girls sprinkled magic reindeer food they got from preschool on the front yard so Santa would be sure to stop at our house. Thank you, preschool teacher! When we think of Christmas, we think of Santa Claus, or Ebenezer Scrooge, or, my absolute favorite, George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life. Whenever we’re in the middle of a big snowstorm, I run outside and shout, “Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!”
We think of Christmas, we think of family and snow and presents and food - all good things. But understanding the center of Christmas changes everything. That’s why we’re here tonight – to remind ourselves and celebrate the truth that we are not the center of our universe. Christmas does not revolve around us and the things we want or do. The center of Christmas is the Son of God. Christmas revolves around the Son! Let’s hear the wonderful true story of Christmas again.
2,000 years ago the center of the world was the Roman Empire, and the center of the empire’s power was Caesar Augustus, the first and greatest emperor of Rome. He was given the name Augustus, meaning exalted, by the Roman Senate. The Senate also gave him almost absolute power. He did a lot of great things with that power – he established the Pax Romana, the Roman peace that gave security to its citizens, and he ushered in the golden age of architecture and literature. The empire, from a human standpoint, revolved around Caesar Augustus. But like Copernicus the heretic, along comes the Gospel writer Luke, to tell us a different story, a radical truth: The center of the universe was not in Rome, but Bethlehem; Not Caesar, but the Messiah.
Pax Romana is great, but it’s only an outward peace. It’s what so many people have today in our society. We look good on the outside. But the inside is a different matter. Think of all the personal struggles we carry with us tonight. Peace inside isn’t something the government can give us. Not even Caesar. It’s not something we can give ourselves.
That’s why it’s so important to understand the real center of Christmas, because understanding the center changes everything. Only the real King, Messiah, can give us that peace in here, inside. The great Caesar himself, without knowing it, helped make real peace possible when he ordered that all the people of the Empire be counted in a census.
The purpose of the census was military, to count the number of fighting-aged men in the Roman Empire. It was also for tax purposes – every citizen needed to pay the Roman Government its due. Jews were exempt from the military, but not from paying taxes. Caesar’s intent for the census was the glory of the empire, but God used it to glorify Himself, and to give us real peace.
God used this pagan emperor to fulfill one of the great prophecies of the Old Testament. Micah 5:2, “But you, Bethlehem Ephratha, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for Me one who is to be ruler of Israel, whose origins are from ancient days.” And so Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Mary wrapped her firstborn in swaddling clothes, because there was no room for Him in the Inn. The King, the real center, came into the world. The world needs this King – you and I need Him. Only the Messiah can deal with the most important problem all of us face – our sin. Sin separates us from God. Sin breaks relationships. Sin hurts families, it hurts nations. *America’s flags are still flying at half staff after the brutal murders of so many young lives. Pastor, why did God allow such a thing to happen? Words fail even preachers at a time like this. I do know we live in a broken, fallen world, a world tainted every day by our sin, sin that creates man’s inhumanity toward man.
God’s Word also tells me that Jesus came to heal our broken hearts, to bind up the wounded. He took the penalty of our sins on His own body, to give us the peace of forgiveness: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). Being justified means it’s just as if I’d never sinned! What a gift! The greatest Christmas gift – peace with God through Christ, forgiveness, eternal life – that’s what the angels meant when they sang to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests” (Luke 2:14).
The peace of forgiveness, and the peace of inner strength to face every day - that’s what begins to happen as we let our lives revolve around the real center of Christmas. “Peace I leave with; My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). I don’t want to be afraid, I don’t want to be troubled. I want peace, so do you. There it is, in the manger, in the face of the Son of God.
That’s why we gather on this cold, short, wintry night, to light our candles, sing our songs, to hear The Story. Jesus gives us peace! *A few months ago our family started the tradition of lighting a candle after supper. It’s the Jesus candle. We put it on our circular coffee table in the family room. Mommy and Daddy and the girls gather around the candle in the center. We sing a song to Jesus. Mommy reads a Bible story. One of the girls prays, the other blows out the candle. Like the candle in the center of the table, we want Jesus to be the center of our home, the center of our lives. We’re glad the girls like to light the candle. We’re glad they love to go to church. They need peace too. One Sunday morning, as Mommy and the girls piled into the van to get to church, mommy said triumphantly, “Girls, we’ll be on time to church today!” Little Maggie threw up her arms and shouted, “Tank You, Jesus, not late!”
Thank You, Lord, for helping us, through Your Word, through this beautiful Gospel of Luke, to understand the real center of Christmas, the place we go for real peace: not out there, not Pax Romana, not some government program, not the perfect mate, not a great job, not a fat pocketbook – but to the manger, to the cross, to the empty tomb, to worship Jesus. After all, understanding the center changes everything. God’s peace to you this Christmas! Amen.