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Monday, July 9, 2018

Christmas Stands for Freedom

It's Christmas in July
            At my church, our tradition is to have a Christmas in July service every year.  It's a way to do something special in the middle of July, which can sometimes be an off month while so many families are away on vacation.  I also enjoy the Christmas in July service because we get to hear the Christmas story and sing Christmas songs, without all the business and stress normally associated with the holiday in December.  And really, any time is a good time to celebrate Christmas because Christmas is the beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ.  The Good News goes on to tell us how Jesus lived, how he died on the cross for our sin, and how he rose again on the third day.  Today, I want to explain how Jesus did all this to win our freedom.  (Click here to watch a really cute and funny retelling of the Christmas story by the kids of Southland Christian Church.)

Galatians 2:19-21
19 For when I tried to keep the law, it condemned me. So I died to the law—I stopped trying to meet all its requirements—so that I might live for God. 20 My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die.

There are 613 Old Testament Laws
            Some of the 613 Old Testament laws are moral laws.  They forbid things like murder, theft, adultery, sexually immoral, etc....  These moral laws seem to be universal across all cultures throughout history.  You almost don't need to be told not to do these things.  For instance, people just inherently seem to know you shouldn't murder--that killing another human being is abhorrent.  Even the most uncivilized cultures have known this.  (People still commit murder, but they know it's wrong or use some twisted reasoning to justify it.)
            Other laws in the Old Testament are civil laws.  They were designed to help the Hebrew/Israelite people living together in society get along.  Anytime you get a lot of people living together, it seems you need rules so everyone can get along.  Many of those civil laws are obsolete for us today, because we don't live in ancient Israel and most of us aren't farmers (and if we are, we don't do it the way they did it back then).  So many of the civil laws of the Old Testament no longer apply to us today.
            A third set of laws were ceremonial (or religious) laws.  These were rules about religious festivals and ceremonies designed to help people practice their religion.  These are law about what kinds of food will make you unclean if you eat them and how to sacrifice animals to atone for sin, etc. 
            Moral laws are universal principles of right and wrong (which we know in our heart, unless we are mentally ill or just choose to ignore our conscious).  The Old Testament civil laws are pretty much obsolete because we are so far removed from the context and culture they addressed.  And Jesus came and set us free from the religious, ceremonial laws. 

What is the Purpose of All these Laws?
            God gave the Law for a reason.  We have already mentioned some practical functions of the various laws.  However, in Romans 3:20, Paul tells us the main purpose of the Law.  He said, “No one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are.”  The Law in the Old Testament shows us how messed up we are and how desperately we need God to come and save us because we cannot save ourselves.  When we start to think we are good people, the Law shows us how sinful we are.  You could say the Law is the Bad News that makes us so thankful for the Good News of Jesus Christ.  One thing we can know for sure:

The Law Cannot Save You
            Before Jesus came, the people of the Bible believed you could only earn God’s approval and be saved from sin and death by fulfilling all the 613 Old Testament laws.  People broke down into different schools of thought about this.  One group was the Sadducees.  These were very intellectual types.  They tended to be cynical about religion.  They saw how impossible it was to fulfill the whole law and so just looked at religion as a way to enhance your life, maybe a tool to advance yourself, or for the elite to wield power over the masses.  You might argue that many Sadducees were practical atheists or agnostics.  They believed this life was all you had to live and there was no life after death.  Therefore, they used religion to gain as much power as possible in this life.  They are still people like that in our world today.
            Another group that took the opposite approach of the Sadducees were the Essenes.  Many believe John the Baptist was an Essene.  The Essenes thought society was so corrupt you had to completely separate from it.  So they went out into the wilderness and decided to start over from scratch.  They were fanatical about their religion and wanted to build their own utopia where everyone followed the Old Testament Law perfectly.  Unfortunately, the Essenes soon realized the new society they formed was not be perfect because they were not perfect and their imperfection made their utopia imperfect.  There are people in our world today that subscribe to a similar view as the Essenes.  They think our world is so corrupt, they want to pull away from it.  So they start their own commune or cult that aims to start over.  Others, move way out into an isolated area of the country and try to live off the grid.  Things never work out the way they're planned, because people are sinful and imperfect and any society, cult, monastery, commune, or utopia we try to build always ends up ruined by our own problems.
            Then there were the Pharisees, which we read about a lot in the New Testament.  They chose to remain in society, but meticulously tried to follow the Law perfectly and taught others to do the same.  The Pharisees were so passionate about the Law they wrote detailed instructions about all of the 613 laws, so that they would know exactly what was expected.  So for instance, one very simple law in the Ten Commandments says, "Remember to observe the Sabbath Day and keep it holy."  But the Pharisees wanted to know exactly how to do that.  How far can you walk before it's considered work?  What if you are carrying a backpack, does that make it work?  How much weight would be allowable.  And so for instance, they said you could only walk about a half a mile; anything beyond that is work.  And I believe I read somewhere that you could only have so many tacks in your sandals to hold them together because too many tacks would make the load you carry as you walk too heavy and it would be considered work!  Does that sound ridiculous?  Well, I can tell you from experience, if you go to a hotel in Jerusalem today on the Sabbath Day and you get in an elevator, it is automatically programed to stop on every floor.  Why?  Because to push the button for the floor you want to get off at is considered work and is prohibited on the Sabbath Day!
            You can get so busy trying to following all these laws, you are no longer free to follow God!  And that's what the Apostle Paul found.  He started out as a Pharisee who devoted his entire life to following God's Law perfectly.  However, he never found any peace in it.  It actually lead him away from God.  He started persecuting Christians, having them arrested and killed, all in the name of his religion.   Until, one day, God appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus in a blinding light and said, "Why are you persecuting me?"  And Paul replied, "Who are you Lord?" He didn't even know who God was anymore, because of all his religious rules.  So Paul found God again.  And that's why he said in Galatians 2:19, “[I] stopped trying to meet all [the Law's] requirements—so that I might live for God.”
            Well, most of us today are not Pharisees and we don't live in Bible times.  However, there is a false religion in our day that says:  “If I’m a good person, I’ll go to heaven.” The same school of thought believes“If I am good, God will reward me.”  Sometimes this religious belief is expressed in the form of a troubling question.  We ask, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  But what the Law shows us is there are no good people.  "All have sinned, all fall short of God's glorious standard."  (Romans 3:23)
            It is incredibly ignorant to think we can be good enough to earn God's blessings.  Our modern notions of what it means to be a “good person” is absurdly na├»ve.  Compare to purest person you know today to some of the holy people from the past.  Take the great protestant reformer, Martin Luther as an example.  Luther was a Roman Catholic monk.  He had dedicated his entire life to the service of God.  He would not marry or have any romantic relationships.  He gave up the priviledge of producing children and took a vow of poverty.  On a pilgrimage to the Vatican in Rome, he crawled on his hands and knees to express his humility and devotion to God.  Yet none of Luther's strenuous religious devotion helped.  Luther said he never felt remotely worthy of God's love.  His sin was ever before him, convicting him, making him feel shame and guilt, and condemning him to hell.  And the Apostle Paul, the herald of freedom in Galatians, was at one time a Pharisee who said no one surpassed him in holiness and dedication to God's Law.  However, Paul was driven to madness by his guilt and shame, because the Law always condemned him.  Thankfully, both Luther and Paul finally woke up and realized you can't do anything to earn salvation; it is a free gift of God we receive through faith in Jesus Christ.  Do you know anyone who is as holy as men like Luther or the Apostle Paul?
            Isaiah 64:6 says, "When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags."  And James 2:10 says, "For the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws."  Martin Luther said, "If my sin was so great and terrible that it required the crucifixion of the Son of God, how can I ever think that following the Law can have any affect whatsoever on my salvation or in winning God's approval?” 
            It can't.  Remember, Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsamene, just before his arrest and crucifixion, "Father, if there is any other way to do this, let this cup of suffering pass from me. However, not my will, but Your will be done."  And the cup didn't pass from Jesus.  He was crucified, because it was the only way to pay the price of our freedom from sin and death.

Receive God's Christmas Gift
            That's why it's so glorious and joyous that Jesus was born as a baby? No wonder we sing Christmas carols like – “Joy to the World!  The Lord Has Come!  Let Earth Receive Her King!”  Jesus didn’t come as a God (He was God, but he was born as a man).  He lived life as one of us and faced all the same trials and temptations and suffered like we suffer.  He knows our struggle.  He lived as one of us, but did not sin.  He perfectly fulfilled the Law that we couldn’t.  He died on the cross as the atonement for our sins.  His blood paid the penalty for our sin and set us free from the consequences of our sin.  His resurrection from the grave heralds the hope we have in Christ—that we are set free from sin and death and can rise to new life if we trust in Christ.  
            So now, we are made right with God through Christ—not by trying to be good enough.  God loved us so much He sent His Son to save us!  How much more could God possibly do to prove He loves us?  He has already done everything! 
            Now it is up to you.  All you have to do is accept it—receive this incredible Christmas gift God gave to you.  Will you? Will you accept God’s Christmas gift to you?