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Hail to the victor

He was born that man no more may die

Issue: "On Earth Peace?," Dec. 25, 1999

The last time my mother was with us was Christmastime 1997. Less than two months later, on Valentine's Day 1998, she died unexpectedly. The next-to-last sermon she heard me preach was a Christmas Eve meditation from Paul's last letter. As he awaited execution, Paul was thinking about Christmas: "This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (2 Timothy 1:9-10). Paul, facing death, found courage and comfort in the appearing of the eternal Son in mortal flesh. Christmas declares that grace has been granted. Grace-love for the unlovable, help for the helpless-is the gift we most need and least appreciate. The single reason for both our need and lack of appreciation is our sin. There was a time when Paul, blinded by and to his own sinfulness, thought himself good, able to earn God's favor, and deserving God's goodness. But when he saw he merited not salvation but damnation, he began to trust and magnify God's donation: "Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!" (2 Corinthians 9:15). It is indescribable, because who can say what it meant to the Father to give His only Son, who shared His exact nature and was eternally with Him, to a world which would do to the incarnate Son what it would do to the invisible Father if it could get its hands on Him? Paul began to grasp and glory in the grace of the Son in the gift of the Father: "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich [in equality, fellowship, and glory with the Father], yet for your sakes He became poor [by taking our sin-cursed human nature], so that you through His poverty might become rich [in every spiritual blessing]" (2 Corinthians 8:9). Now let us all with gladsome cheer go with the shepherds and draw near to see the precious Gift of God who hath His own dear Son bestowed. Christmas declares that death is defeated. For many this Christmas would be the best ever if on Christmas Eve the National Institutes of Health announced, "Cancer-in all its forms-curable." Imagine not having to worry about the disease most feared. But Christ's appearing makes a bolder announcement: "Death-from all causes-defeated!" That might seem a cruel declaration, since the annual coming of Christmas has its uniquely painful way of underlining the reality of death. We think of those missing at the Christmas table and ask ourselves how many more times we ourselves will see the season. But Paul steeled himself to face capital punishment by affirming that Christmas means the destruction of death. He knew that we have been inoculated against death by Christ's incarnation. "Since the children have flesh and blood, He too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death-that is, the devil-and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death" (Hebrews 2:14-15). Dearest Lord, Thee will I cherish. Though my breath fail in death, yet I shall not perish, but with Thee abide forever there on high, in that joy which can vanish never! Christmas declares that immortality is illuminated. People are looking for immortality or anything that approximates it. They go to the cosmetic counters for "age-defying" make-up. They crowd into the plastic surgeons' offices to buy a youthful appearance. They swear off fat and gobble down fistsful of herbal supplements trying to extend life at the cost of its enjoyment. All these efforts are doomed to fail. Death keeps casting its shadow across our lives. But in the light of Christmas Paul could see life and immortality. Because Christ took our mortal flesh and suffered the mortal consequences of our sin, we can live forever. We can experience abundant life now-life lived in fellowship with God. And, for us, death is our departure to the better though not best life in the presence of Christ. Hail the heav'n-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness. Light and life to all He brings, ris'n with healing in His wings. Mild He lays His glory by, born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth. My mother now experiences in the presence of Jesus a life I can only preach by faith. But both of us wait for the perfect day when the immortality illuminated by the Son's incarnation becomes ours in body and soul.

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William H. Smith
William H. Smith

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