The daily round of news can be so discouraging – the continued conflict in Ukraine and now the conflict in the Middle-East, the drugs and alcohol, the homelessness, the violence and rape. Furthermore, many parents are concerned about the influences that distract from the formal education of their children and subvert the traditionally accepted moral values in life – values that all too often are gathering dust on the shelf of history.
So, as we enter the Christmas season, it’s helpful to reflect on the words of Paul the Apostle in his Letter to Titus, chapter 2, verse 11: For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.
Grace is a theme that bubbles throughout the Bible, especially in the New Testament. It speaks of mercy or compassion shown towards the undeserving. Grace and mercy echo the idea of God’s agape love.
Furthermore, the verb appeared tells us that we wouldn’t know anything about God’s love or grace unless he himself had revealed it. And Paul tells us, God’s grace is supremely revealed in his personal involvement in the rescue he holds out to us all in God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
Indeed, Paul’s words awaken within us a thrill of hope associated with the announcement of the angel to the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth: “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).
Shepherds. At the time of Jesus’ birth, shepherds were at the bottom of the social order. They were the lost, the outsiders. Why did the angel announce the birth to them? Given the resources of heaven the angel could have pulled off one very spectacular announcement in Bethlehem or, better still, in Jerusalem.
To begin to appreciate the reason the angel spoke to the shepherds we need to consider a back-story we find in the Book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel spoke of the kings of Israel as shepherds, but he knew that many of them were self-indulgent, power-hungry exploiters. In Ezekiel’s day God’s people had been conquered by the Babylonians – Jerusalem was in ruins and its people were in exile. Ezekiel, chapter 34 tells us it was the fault of the kings, the shepherds.
But Ezekiel’s news was not all negative. He spoke of a day when God would raise up a new and perfect king, a shepherd-king in the line of king David – a king whose power and glory was far beyond what anyone dreamed.
The king. With the angel’s announcement to the shepherds, we see that Jesus’ birth is the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s promise. God himself would raise up a king to do things Israel’s kings hadn’t done — restore the weak and gather the lost, offer an amnesty and open up his rule of justice and peace for the world, for ever. “Then they will know that I the Lord their God am with them” Ezekiel had said (Ezekiel 34:30). Jesus’ birth is indeed the very best news the world has known. It truly awakens within us a thrill of hope.
In fulfilment of his promise, the creator God himself has reached down from the glory of highest heaven to rescue and transform the lives of all people, even the lowliest, including the outcasts. No wonder the heavenly choir of angels broke into song: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, ‘shalom’, ‘peace’.
In her Christmas Broadcast in 2012, Her Late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II said, “The carol, In The Bleak Midwinter, ends by asking a question of all of us who know the Christmas story, of how God gave himself to us in humble service: “What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise man, I would do my part”. The carol gives the answer “Yet what I can I give him – give my heart”.”
How right this is: Jesus wants us to respond to his grace, his love and mercy, by turning to him, our savior-king, and by giving him our heart in true love and loyalty.
To return to Paul’s words in Titus, chapter 2. He says in verses 11 and 12: 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…
Paul wants us to understand that God’s grace or mercy is not mere pie in the sky when we die. God’s grace motivates, educates and delights in changing us for the better. Grace is almost personified. It becomes the teacher that trains and nurtures us. Or, put another way, grace teaches us to live as God’s people.
Three words identify the changes that God delights to see in us: sober, upright, godly.
Sober speaks to us personally: we are to live lives of integrity and self-discipline. Upright speaks of our relations with others: we are to live selflessly and honestly, serving others by taking an interest in them, showing compassion and practical care where there is genuine need. Godly speaks of our relationship with God: we are to live for God in loyalty and with joy.
Imagine what the world would be like if God’s people everywhere began to live out these qualities. No, it would not be boring. As studies consistently show, society benefits when people respond to God’s grace and live in its light.
In the Age of Enlightenment reason and will were reckoned to be keys to human behaviour. In today’s post- post-modern world feelings have become the driver. But I am sure you have noticed what Paul is saying here: God’s grace becomes the motivating force for our lives. When we personally experience God’s compassion and mercy, we will be drawn to delight in doing the good that God desires. His grace coaxes the bud of new life in Christ into flower. Yes, it will be a lifetime process, but God’s love will draw us.
The words of the angel on the night of Jesus’ birth speak through the ages: “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord”.
Indeed, when our hearts are awakened to the wonder of this, we can truly sing: O Holy Night… it is the night of the dear Savior’s birth; long lay the world in sin and error pining, till he appeared and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn…
May you and your loved ones know the deep joy of the coming of the Lord Christ Jesus.
A Prayer at Christmas: Loving Father, who sent your only Son into the world that we might have life through faith in him: grant that we who celebrate his birth at this time may come at last to the fullness of life in your heavenly kingdom, where he now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.
© John G. Mason
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Note: My comments on Luke 2 are drawn from my book, Luke: An Unexpected God, Second Edition, Aquila: 2019.
You may like to listen to the Sovereign Grace, ‘Hear the Gospel Story’ version of O Holy Night