“Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life. For if we have been joined with Him in the likeness of His death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of His resurrection.” (Romans 6:4-5 HCSB)
As the old holiday song says, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Do you have any holiday/Christmas traditions in your family? Do the decorations go up each year at a specific time? Do you put lights on your house or decorations in your yard? What about certain ornaments on your Christmas tree? Do you hang stockings or have a fireplace? That’s one of the things I enjoy about our house. We bought this house a little over 18 years ago and it has a real, wood-burning fireplace with a mantle. My wife loves to decorate the mantle for all of the different seasons and holidays, but Christmas is special – in more ways than you might imagine.
I remember several Christmas traditions/celebrations from my childhood. I loved going to the downtown Tulsa Christmas parade and the most memorable was the year my younger brother wandered off and my parents couldn’t find him. Now, before you panic, the story ends well and we got him back but not without a few hours of parental panic and the police getting involved. The police actually found my brother not long after he wandered away from my parents but it took them a while to figure out who he was and where he belonged because he told them his first name was “Mike” and his last name was “Elephant” – so the police were looking for a family named “Elephant” and our name was Nickerson. So, the legend of Mike Elephant was born and he lives on as we pass the story from generation to generation. My grandchildren have stuffed elephants and they are all named, you guessed it, Mike – Mike Elephant.
Why do we tell these stories and pass them down to our children and our children’s children? I believe we do it because it gives us a sense of belonging, of connection to someone and something bigger than ourselves, a sense of family. I think it helps us to know that we have ties to our past and that gives us hope for the future. I’ve seen a very interesting trend in our culture over the past few years. Maybe you’ve noticed it, too. As we’ve become more and more mobile and separated from our families and independent, we’ve become more and more interested in our family heritage. More and more people are searching for their ancestry and testing their DNA to identify their family lineage.
I have a rather interesting situation with my family ancestry and lineage. Without going into details as to why, I am closer to my maternal family line than I am my paternal family line but I know much more about my paternal family lineage than I do about my maternal family lineage. I can easily trace my father’s family (the Nickerson line) all the way back into 13th century England but I can’t trace my mother’s family (McCully) back much further than my own grandparents and great grandparents.
You’re probably wondering what all of this has to do with our focal passage in Romans 6, right? You might even be wondering why I chose to stay with Romans 6 on the Sunday before Christmas. Why not head over to Matthew 1 – 2, or Luke 2 and tell THE Christmas story. Well, I tend to believe that ALL of scripture tells the Christmas story and Romans 6:4-5 is no different. This passage tells us about our family heritage. It ties us to our past, but gives us hope for our future.
As I sit here and write these words, sipping a cup of coffee with Christmas music playing in the background, the remnants of a snowstorm lingering outside and the lights of our Christmas tree casting a colorful reflection on my iPad screen, I can’t help but reminisce about my childhood memories of Christmas but how very different this year will be from those memories. Some of you may not be able to spend Christmas with family, for various reasons. Maybe your family lives too far away, is in quarantine or maybe, like my own parents, they’ve been gone for several years. Let me remind you that the message of Christmas is one of hope and joy. How? Because it is the message that God has not abandoned us to languish in this pain, this loneliness, this suffering, this pandemic, this life threatened by impending death without hope… without Him.
Romans 5:6 says that Christ came “at just the right moment.” Sometimes I think we question God’s timing or the answers He gives in response to our prayers and tears but just as this verse states, His timing is always perfect. We might question, resist or even despise His response, but it is always, always in accord with His will and desire for our life. In today’s focal passage, Paul says that we were buried with Christ by baptism into death in order that we may walk in a new way of life. There was purpose in Christ’s birth and there was purpose in Christ’s death and resurrection. There’s purpose in our death – death to sin, so that there might be purpose in our life – a life of righteousness. But we find it hard to embrace the idea that there’s purpose in our pain…
Honestly, knowing there is purpose in our pain is the only thing that makes it bearable. C.S. Lewis says, “pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” (The Problem of Pain) Even when people don’t believe in God they seek purpose in their pain. Stephen Hawking, the famed astrophysicist who didn’t believe in God and suffered from ALS said, “My disabilities have not been a significant handicap in my field, which is theoretical physics. Indeed, they have helped me in a way by shielding me from lecturing and administrative work that I would otherwise have been involved in.”
Paul says that there is purpose in our dying with Jesus in baptism, “in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a a new way of life.” There it is, the true hope of the coming of the Christ – a new way of living. Living with a purpose. Life can come out of death. The angels declared that God had NOT forgotten and that they had “good news of great joy” for ALL mankind: Today, God’s promised savior – who is Messiah the LORD – has been born for YOU in Bethlehem. The Christmas message is that God has stepped into our world to give us HOPE – good news of great joy for ALL mankind. The purpose in our dying to sin and self, as demonstrated by our baptism, is to have a new way of life, to live anew in Christ and through the power of His resurrection.
One of my favorite Christmas songs is titled “Christmas has its Cradle” and the fist line goes like this: Christmas has its cradle, where a Baby cried. Did the lantern’s shadow show Him crucified? Did He foresee darkly His life’s willing loss? Christmas has its cradle and Easter has its cross. There’s another popular Christmas song, written and performed by Mark Lowry, called “Mary, did you know?” It asks a similar question, how much foresight did Mary (or, for that matter, Joseph) have in the plan and purpose of God through the birth and fulfillment of His promise in this baby boy? They were both given insight into the miracle through Gabriel’s visitation, announcement and assurances to them. If anyone knew this child was a miracle, it was Mary. Joseph had assurances from the angel and from Mary herself, but she KNEW!
I want to stop and ask you a question, what are you convinced of regarding this child? What does Christmas mean? Is it just another winter holiday or is it GOOD NEWS for all mankind, including you? Why? Because what you believe about Christmas really does impact how you view the entirety of scripture. In fact, it impacts how you view all of life. If Jesus was not “virgin born” then his birth is not miraculous or even notable, for that matter, but simply commonplace. He can be nothing more than a mere mortal man and is certainly not God incarnate. The shepherd’s angelic experience was nothing more than fanciful storytelling or the result of a night of ‘too much wine’ and the Magi, well, they must be just a figment of someone’s imagination. On a more modern front, if Christmas is nothing more than a celebration of consumerism, gift exchanges, social parties and family time then Jesus is likely nothing more than just another good, moral, but highly over-hyped religious teacher who has little or no real authority in your life.
If you really believed that, I suspect you would not have read this far or stayed with me up to this point. So, I’m going to assume that you must believe there’s something different, something special and maybe even miraculous about that baby born that night, so long ago. If so, consider these next words very, very carefully…
“For if we have been joined with Him in the likeness of His death, we will certainly also be [joined with Him] in the likeness of His resurrection!”
Let that sink in, a bit. The promise of God is not fulfilled in the coming of the Christ child, alone. It isn’t even fulfilled in the promise of His death. Now here’s the kicker, it isn’t even fulfilled in the Messiah’s resurrection. No, really! The promise of God will be fulfilled when we are joined with Him in the likeness of His resurrection! Did Mary foresee the cross? I don’t know, but I know God DID! But not just the cross, He also foresaw the GLORY of the resurrection that Easter morning and He ALSO saw that day when we would be joined with Jesus in the power of His resurrection.
Yes, that night in Bethlehem when the Angels lit up the sky was a wonderful moment filled with awe, wonder and the magnificent GLORY of God. But the glory of God didn’t stop there… it extends all the way down into this crazy, crazy quarantine filled, panic inducing, virus laden, global pandemic year and even into your life. A life that is intended by almighty God to be lived and walked in a completely new and different way than you’ve ever lived or walked, in the past.
In what way is it to be new and different? We are no longer slaves to sin. We’ve been set free to serve our Lord in complete and absolute obedience. Free to exhibit the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives and through our actions and attitudes. We’ll look at these things in more details in the weeks and months ahead. For now, CELEBRATE the good news that God revealed for all mankind on that glorious Christmas night, so long ago. Merry Christmas and may God’s blessings rest on each of you. Oh, and GO TELL someone else about this good news.