There are some expressions that change from one generation to another. I don't remember saying this to any of my children and I don't recall hearing the expression used by any of my contemporaries, but I clearly remember my mother saying, "Now, Clayton, tie a string around your finger so you won't forget."
Of course, a string around your finger would be kind of hard to forget, and the logic of tying the string around your finger is that when you feel the irritation of the string, you will ask, "Why is that string there?" That will lead you to say, "Oh, I remember!" Then you do whatever it was you were supposed to do.
We are much too sophisticated to tie strings around our fingers. I don't know about you, but I have a pocket calendar in which I have space to enter my appointments on one side and a list of things to do on the other side. It is amazing how helpful it is — if I don't forget to look at it.
Charles Dickens in his gripping story, "The Haunted Man," tells of a chemist who was deeply troubled with unhappy memories. As he sat before the fire in a dismal reverie, a ghost appeared and offered the haunted man the opportunity to have his memory destroyed. The man immediately took the ghost up on the offer and from that time on, not only was the man without memory, but he also had the dread power to strip others of their memory as well. Yet the gift was a disappointment. So great was the man's misery and so great was the unhappiness that he inflicted on others, that he begged the ghost to restore to him his memory. The tale came to a conclusion with the man offering a grateful and earnest prayer, "Lord, keep my memory green."
The Lord has a way of doing just that. Beginning with His chosen people, the Jews, God gave them reminders of what He wanted them to remember. He kept their memory green by giving them rituals, ceremonies, symbols, feast days, and festivals that would serve as a string around the finger. Passover was the time to remember God's deliverance from Egypt; Pentecost, remembering when the law was given to Moses on Mount Sinai; Hanukkah, remembering the dedication of the Temple of the Macabees following their victory over the Syrians under Antiochus IV.
God has done the same for the Christian church. Every baptism is not only a seal of the vows taken by parents for a child or by an adult for himself, but it is a reminder to every one of us that we are separated unto Jesus Christ through baptism and belong to Him. Every communion service is a reminder that Jesus Christ died for our sins and that we can be forgiven through His death and mercy. The first day of the week as a day of worship is a remembrance of Easter, the day of resurrection.
Christmas, too, is a string around our finger. It reminds us of the birth of Jesus, but if all we remember about Christmas is that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, we have missed the most important lesson of Christmas. God wants us to remember a lot more about Christmas than the fact that it was a birthday. Even though there has never been another birthday like it, the birthday of Jesus is a string around our finger to remind us of at least four very important things.
First, every Christmas is our reminder that the universe is personal, not mechanistic.
The coming of Jesus, the Messiah, does not answer all our questions about God and about the universe, but it does answer the most important question: What is the character of God like? What is it that lies at the very heart of the universe? Christmas tells us that there is a God who sent His Son, Jesus, into this world. Christmas tells us that God is the God who is like Jesus. The universe is not a giant machine ticking inexorably toward its fatalistic demise.
The God who created the heavens so loved this old world He made that He sent His only Son that those who believe in Him might not be doomed to destruction but have life everlasting. God is concerned. God cares. God loves. God knows. God longs for the people, the object of His concern and care and love, to love Him in return. Christmas is a reminder that at the heart of this world, this universe, is a living, personal God. It is not a mechanistic thing.
I can't help but think that Christmas which reminds us that this God is personal also reminds us that this God has a sense of humor. You say, "Where is the humor?" I think it is kind of funny that for a world that is so full of its pretensions of social order and economic and material strategy that this God of the universe would come into this world in the person of a son born in a manger to grow up to be a carpenter. That is almost like someone important coming to Highland Park who doesn't wear a Polo shirt. Can you believe it?
The way He entered the stage of history says, "Wait a minute, you have gotten all wrapped up in a wrong set of values," and lovingly and kindly yet very firmly and gently, He pokes fun at our pretensions and says, "That is what life and love and loyalty and faith and hope are all about." Yes, God has a sense of humor.
Every Christmas is a string around our finger to remind us that the unchanging God still stands above the changing history of the world.
"In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made. In Him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. His name is called Emmanuel, God is with us."
All over Eastern Europe there are magnificent cathedrals, some of them five to seven hundred years old. Many of these cathedrals were damaged during World War II. When we were in East Germany recently we were surprised to find the government was paying for the restoration of many of these churches. The cost for the restoration would have to be very expensive when you consider that some of it was done in gold leaf.
When we asked about it, we were told that the buildings were great works of architecture and that they contained the priceless, artistic treasures that were a part of the cultural heritage of the nation. To the authorities and probably to the masses, the churches were not any more than that. They were simply magnificent structures that needed to be remembered as a part of the cultural past and they have become museums for priceless works of art.
In Dresden we walked on the city square right by the front door of the major cathedral. The square was filled with booths that reminded me of walking down the midway at the Texas State Fair. It was bitterly cold but the square was filled with people milling through the spaces between the booths where you could buy anything from beer to sausage to handmade trinkets to miniature nativity sets. It was called "Christmas Market." On the archway over the entrance to the Christmas market in Dresden was a sign that said this was the 554th year that Christmas Market had been held in Dresden. Every city we visited in East Germany including Wittenberg, Viemar, Leipzig, Dresden and Frankfurt has a Christmas Market in the town square during the four weeks of Advent.
Now, think about that. Think of what that kind of history means to each generation, especially to those living in an atheistic society. The very existence of a church building has got to be a string around society's finger to remind them of a faith that once existed in something other than dialectical materialism. Some of those carpenters, masons, and artisans who worked to restore these magnificent cathedrals have to ask themselves, "Why is this pulpit here?" "What do you reckon was said from it?" "What do those clusters of grapes carved in the table represent?" "What does the cross mean?" "Who was this person who is hanging on the cross?" A string around the finger!
To what extent the current upheaval in the Eastern Bloc countries is due to these strings around the corporate fingers, we will never know. I can't help but believe that in a society where atheistic communism has failed so miserably, the more recent generations may be reminded that there is another way.
The news out of Budapest was reported by a reporter who saw, on the edge of the fighting where tanks where rolling, a poignant scene. Imagine watching from a window as tanks are rolling and people are shooting and are shot and then seeing off to one side a man on his way home on a bicycle with a Christmas tree. In the midst of revolution, the tree was a reminder of life and hope associated with the birth of the Prince of Peace.
Every Christmas is our reminder that there is a guide through the moral wasteland of modern life.
He whose birth we celebrate said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." As I think about the major problems we face in our culture, I see the terrible price we are paying for not living life His way. The disintegration of the family through desertion and divorce is exacting a terrible toll on the psyches of the next generation. One analyst went so far as to say that the major cause of violence and drug abuse rises out of hostility created in the children of divorce. I think that is too simplistic, but it is at least one part of the equation. It used to be syphilis and gonorrhea were the gremlins of hanky-panky and we made jokes about those who were "queer" or "different" and didn't have to worry about the social diseases, but now AIDS is no joking matter and statistics show that more than 80 percent of all those who have the AIDS virus contracted it through homosexual activity.
Yesterday's mail brought me a letter from an organization concerned about morality in the public media. The object of their immediate concern was the lyrics of a song that is currently on the top ten of rock hits, a song that has sold well over 500,000 copies. They had the words printed on the back of their letter and it was so bad that, even in the privacy of my study with nobody else around, I blushed to read them. I wouldn't even read them to another man, much less in mixed company. Those words represent the bottom of the moral garbage pail out of which millions of our young people are eating.
Jesus offers a better way than that. It is not just a better way; it is the only way and Christmas is a string around our finger to remind us that in this moral wasteland in which we live there is a way — His way.
Finally, every Christmas is a reminder that the majority is not always right.
If Judea had been a democracy, Jesus would not have been elected president. He wouldn't even have made it on the ticket. The world crucified truth then and it still does, but as many as received Him to them gave He power to become the children of God.
The revolution going on in Eastern Europe is positive as a rejection of atheistic materialistic communism but, once they have thrown the rascals out, who or what is going to take their place? Unfortunately there are some democratic rascals around. There is something darkly sinister about the human mind and it still loves darkness better than light, and people still abuse power, abuse privilege; and this is true not just in totalitarian governments but it is also true in ours.
How tragic it is that we often don't recognize that human nature at its very core is oriented away from God. Not only is this true in the spiritual realm, but it has been true in the realm of social and scientific discovery that anybody who comes along with a new idea, anybody who comes along with a new understanding of the truth of the way the world works, is often derided by those who are rooted in the old way of things.
On my desk sometime ago I came across a script about Adam Thomson of Cincinnati, Ohio, who filled the first bathtub in the United States during the year 1842. Doctors predicted rheumatism and inflammation of the lungs from such a new-fangled idea. A ban on bathtub exercise was published by Philadelphia from November 1 until March of that year, and Providence and North Hartford set up extra water rates for anybody who had one of those contraptions.
In 1896, England still had a law prohibiting any power-driven vehicle from traveling over four miles per hour on a public road. Furthermore, it required that such a vehicle should be preceded by a man bearing a red flag. Samuel Morse had adverse criticism from the press and congress, but today we talk around the world over his invention and it is so sophisticated now that even he wouldn't believe what we have.
McCormick's first reaper was derided the country over as a cross between a chariot, a wheelbarrow, and a flying machine. When Westinghouse proposed a railroad train with wind — what we know as Westinghouse Air Brakes — he was also called a fool. Goodyear was booed by everyone but his wife as he worked for eleven years on vulcanizing rubber. Edward Jenner was jeered at when he said he had discovered a vaccine to protect people from smallpox. Serious-minded men went so far as to say that all the animal diseases would be transmitted to the human race, and some people said that horns had actually grown out of the heads of innocent people who had been injected. Yet, Jenner eliminated the smallpox scourge by using his vaccine.
Robert Fulton heard only words of discouragement from the crowd as they watched him work on his steamboat. They called it "Fulton's Folly," yet steamboats ended up sailing the seven seas. Madame Curie sorted through tons and tons of waste material in search of radium. The common man laughingly asked, "What is radium?" It ended up being one of the major contributions to medical science.
My friends, there is something terribly perverse about human nature. It is still true today in scientific, cultural and social areas, and especially true in the spiritual realm that those who make progress walk alone. The biblical judgment is still true that human beings love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil. For that reason, democracy is a better form of government than communism for it has a better system of checks and balances against the evil resident in every human heart. But checks and balances will work only if the moral orientation of the majority is in line with the truth we have been given by God in Jesus Christ. Otherwise, democracy can become nothing more than a tyranny of peer pressure.
So, my friends, Christmas is a string around our finger to remind us that truth and morality are not arrived at by popular vote, but only through the gracious self-disclosure that God has given us when the Word became flesh and lived here. Jesus is born! Because He was born we know that the universe is personal, not mechanistic. Because Jesus was born we know that the unchanging God stands above and behind the changing history of our world. Because Jesus was born we have a moral compass through the immoral wasteland of modern life. And because Jesus Christ was born and crucified, the way of Jesus is traveled only by a minority; but it is those who dare to follow Him and who dare to listen to Him and live life His way, it is to them that He shows himself on Easter Sunday.
What a marvelous, marvelous gift God has given us. But let us not think just of a birthday. Let us remember what his birthday means. It is a string around our finger to remind us of something terribly, terribly important.