...And a Happy New You!

Titus 2:11-14
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

Last week the world lost a great mind: Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens was a noted atheist who wrote on all kinds of topics, especially politics. He wrote a favorite book of mine, GOD IS NOT GREAT, how religion poisons everything. Now it may seem strange to mention such a thing on Christmas Eve, but bear with me. Hitchens' atheism took root growing up in a Christian primary school in England. An interview with his brother traced the exact moment when Christopher had enough: his teacher said God intentionally made grass green because the color is meant to be a calming influence on us. Now why the teacher made such a claim is a mystery to me; seems like "I don't know why grass is green" may have been a satisfactory answer for a nine year old. Although I have an inquisitive nine year old at home and that probably would not work on him!

Hitchens' main issue with religion- not just Christianity, but all religions- is not that believers are idiots, but that faith is a precursor to evil acts.  He argues that the great evils of history can be traced to religious fervor or fanaticism. And any unbiased reading of history would agree that religious folk often do horrible things in the name of their faith- there are even such stories in the Bible! We know about Islamic terrorism, conflict between Serbs and Croatians, Catholics and Protestants. Ugly, horrible stuff. But Stalin was a brutal dictator, as was Kim Jong Il, and Saddam Hussein. And no one ever considered them persons of faith.

One of the core beliefs of many of the world's religions is in the power of sin. There is a real force at work in the world, leading us astray from just behavior and influencing us to act selfishly or harshly toward others. To be clear, sin does not force us to make unjust choices- we do that on our own. We hope our faith is strong enough that when we face difficult choices in life we will choose good over evil. Our hope is when we give in to sin and make destructive choices, we remember we are never too far away from God's redeeming power.

The Apostle Paul would have been someone Christopher Hitchens could point to as an example of religious fanaticism. Early in Paul's life he was certainly no apostle- he was a religious zealot, like those feared by Hitchens, charged with bringing an end to the movement within Judaism which identified Jesus as the Messiah even with violence. Paul's work was to hunt down the so-called Christians and arrest them. One day as he was on his way to Damascus in Syria, where there was a Christian congregation, he was struck by a bright light. Blinded and unable to move, he heard the words of Jesus: "Why do you persecute me?" Paul later converted and was baptized a Christian. He went on to write more of the New Testament than any other single writer. The formerly violent, fanatical zealot wrote such great words as:

"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails."

And this:

"For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
That does not sound like religious zealotry to me, but the assurance that comes from one who has experienced the radical change God's power can make in the heart of a believer.  How is such a change possible? And why are more evil people not changed so they can stop their destructive actions? 

Paul also wrote the text from Titus we read tonight, which speaks of a break between periods of time known as epiphanies, or manifestations of the holy in our world. "For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all..." The grace of God has appeared- manifested- bringing salvation. The manifestation Paul speaks of is not just the birth of Jesus, but his entire life, including death, resurrection, and ascension. Then Paul speaks of a second epiphany in verse 13: "While we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ."  When is the second manifestation? No one knows. In the meantime, between the two epiphanies, we wait. But it is not a twiddle your thumbs type of waiting. We undergo what Paul calls "training": a process of growth and maturity in faith. This is not the sort of training runners do before the White Rock Marathon, but the training parents offer to their kids. “Say ‘Yes sir and no ma’am.’” “Always brush your teeth and hair.” “Give a firm handshake.” “Look people in the eye when you speak to them.” “Don’t give up on something that is too hard.” It’s training that leads to maturity.

As we grow stronger in faith, we turn away from sin and its power. Later in Titus 3:3 Paul reminds us of what behaviors this faith change leaves behind: "For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another." See how he uses past tense there? “We were once foolish, disobedient…” etc. The process of change has already begun in is. We have begun to leave behind the sort of behavior Hitchens was so concerned about. We could argue that seeing that sort of mean spirited, undisciplined behavior is evidence of someone who is still immature—untrained. Now God's grace is "training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly..." Paul experienced the transforming power of the grace of Christ. The same transformation- training- is available for us all! 

This change in us is why the message of Christmas is so important. The Christmas message of love, grace, and hope makes it possible for us to become new people—Christ’s own people. It is about good news—grace—that is manifested in us through the appearance of the holy. God’s love was manifest in the angelic chorus that announced Christ’s birth to the shepherds. God’s love was manifest in the star the Magi followed from the East. God’s love was manifest in Mary’s unexpected pregnancy. And God’s love is manifest every year we celebrate these world-changing events. God’s love is manifest in us tonight.

Christmas offers the Christian an opportunity to reflect upon the world, the society in which we live, and our own lives. The training, or transformation, we experience is due to the grace of Christ, which made its first appearance this night in Bethlehem. Christian faith, born on this night, is no more a source of evil than it is a cure. Evil is as real a force today as it always has been. The power to defeat evil is not ours, but Christ's. This makes our faith even more important. As Paul said, Christ redeems us from iniquity- sin- and we become zealous- but not the kind of zealots Paul once was or that Hitchens believed all persons of faith had the potential to become. We become zealous for good works. So we fight against injustice. We advocate for the poor. We stand alongside this who suffer. We feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, comfort those who hurt. Because we remember that on this night Christ was manifest for us. We have been purified, redeemed, and made zealous for good works. We are Christ's own people!

Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with cancer nearly two years ago. His prognosis was bleak, and he gave several interviews in which he reflected on his mortality. He was adamant that no one think he had a change of heart about religion as death approached. He wanted to cling to his atheistic world view until the very end, even as thousands of persons of many faiths sent him prayers and well wishes. I hope the end of his life was peaceful. I respect his way of seeing the world, but obviously I cannot agree with it. Maybe if he had known more mature—fully trained—persons of faith his view of religion would not have been so harsh. Then again, Hitchens believed Mother Theresa was a zealot and fraud, so don’t hold your breath on that one.

Tonight, celebrate the infancy of faith. Consider your own training in Christ. And look forward to a day when all of God's dreams for the world- and your own life- come true.  Our four year old son Linus has been singing Christmas carols for weeks now, with a four year old spin on them. I mentioned "Jingle bells, Batman smells" recently. The other day was another: his version of WE WISH YOU A MERRY CHRISTMAS. The original version ends with, "Good tidings for Christmas, and a Happy New Year!" Linus' ends like this: "Good tidings for Christmas and a Happy New You!" There it is, the gospel according to a four year old. Tonight we celebrate faith born for us. And the promise made manifest to each of us: a new you- a gift of grace from a loving God and powerful Savior, born on this night for each of us. Merry Christmas! In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.