God's grace and mercy in Jesus Christ calls all sinners to a celebration. A "those who sat in darkness have seen a great light" kind of celebration. A "come to Bethlehem and see the new-born Savior" revelry. Like two divine sheepdogs, God's grace and mercy hound every person in the world to join the festivities. The angels and shepherds and wise men announce it. It shouts its way through the streets of every village and metropolis, singing hymns of Gospel sweetness. It pounds at every door, calling everybody who sits in darkness to come out and celebrate because "to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."
So why doesn't everyone fling open their doors? Why can't we expect everyone to join us in "glad songs of exultation"? Don't people need a wonderful counselor? What about peace? There's got to be a bigger market for those seeking peace. Why are there so few at the party, but so many locked away alone in their room in the dark?
As good as the "good news of Jesus Christ" may sound, we're all natural born scorekeepers. We're convinced - we've built whole religions around this principle - that ultimately God expects us to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, put forth our best effort, and show that with his help we're dedicated to escaping our shipwreck of a life. In short, as much as we may fear God's judgment at our making a mess of life and the world, we're more afraid of the Father's grace and mercy. We're more afraid of freedom than slavish obescience.
The world will buy any recipe for salvation the Church sells them. But, announce that Jesus' birth signals the end of self-salvation projects, that salvation is out of their hands, that the life they cling to is just a death postponed unless the Savior frees them by his grace and mercy, and watch people recoil, scared out of their mind.
Salvation is a gift given. It comes swaddled in a feed trough, in Bethlehem. God doesn't bargain with Mary, strike a deal with the shepherds, or entice the Magi with a promise of rewards beyond their imagining. No, the birth of God's Word announces to people that all the achieving has been done for us by a Redeemer who's been working from the start, despite our moralizing, intellectualizing, and spiritualizing attempts to achieve earthly goals and heavenly rewards.
Jesus' birth calls attention to all our failed attempts at saving ourselves, at living a satisfactory life pleasing to God and ourselves. Instead, our Savior comes, fully God and fully man, to seek and save the lost, least, littlest, lame, and last. But we're so afraid of messing up that when grace and mercy call us to the party we pull the curtains shut, turn out the lights, and hold our breath until they've gone on to the next house. We can't be bothered with such things as grace, mercy, and freedom. We have a life to life and salvation to work out.There's a self-improvement lottery to win, and we hold the golden ticket! And anyway, if God were serious, he'd show up at the door with a to-do list in hand. Instead, what do we get? An invitation? Who's got time for parties when there's real work to be done? There's a baby born every four seconds. What's one more in the grand scheme of things?
The birth of Jesus - like the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus - that announces grace and mercy pursues every dead broke, spiritually bankrupt sinner is just so much foolishness to a world hell-bent on avoiding religious and moral unemployment.
The world doesn't want to be given "good news of glad tidings" unless there's a gift receipt at the bottom of the bag. Then, maybe after the holidays they can return it for the latest version of their religious hobby horse. But God's free grace and mercy in Jesus Christ? What good is freedom if it doesn't inspire us to pursue our best self now? Only someone who's morally and intellectually and spiritually bankrupt would want anything to do with the kind of "good news" that points us to the city of David, to a Savior, Christ the Lord.
Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, Online Content Director for Higher Things, a contributing writer at 1517 Legacy Project, Christ Hold Fast, and LOGIA. Pastor Riley co-hosts the podcast: 'The Higher Things Simul Cast'. He is pastor of Saint John Lutheran Church in Webster, MN. A graduate of Concordia Universities in St. Paul, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon, Pastor Riley received his seminary and post-graduate education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He colloquized into the LC-MS from the ELCA in 2008. He is married to Annie, and is the father of four children: Owen, Alma, Hoshea, and Hallel.