Who is Christmas for? It’s a simple question, but one that upon some thought, doesn’t seem so easy to answer. Initially you might respond, ‘Christmas is for us’, or ‘Christmas is for Christians’, ‘Christmas is for the world’, maybe even ‘Christmas is for the kids.’ This question may confuse you as it did the Grinch when he was confused hearing the Who’s down in Whoville singing even though he’d stolen all their presents and decorations. Remember that moment? “He stared down at Whoville! The Grinch popped his eyes! Then he shook! What he saw was a shocking surprise!Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small,was singing! Without any presents at all!He hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming! It came!Somehow or other, it came just the same!And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,stood puzzling and puzzling: ‘How could it be so?’‘It came without ribbons! It came without tags!’‘It came without packages, boxes or bags!’And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store.’‘Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!’”
Many of you have thought many things about our original question, and have asked similar questions as well, ‘Why did Jesus come?’ ‘Why was He sent to us?’ ‘Why did Jesus advent among us?’ Most answers given to this question sound something like this: ‘to save us’, ‘to die for us’, or ‘to show us how to live.’ While these are all correct on their own, do you see that the focus of them is all us, as if we (you and I) were the only reason Jesus came. Is that true? Or, like the Grinch, should we see that maybe, all of this means a little bit more? According to Scripture there is much more. The primary, the supreme, the first and foremost foundational reason beneath all other reasons that Jesus advented among us was…not for us but for God. Why the first Christmas? The answer Ezekiel gives is this: Jesus came to vindicate the holiness of God.
Turn with me to the book of Ezekiel.
Ezekiel prophesied to God’s people after they had been carried off in exile to Babylon. Ezekiel was himself one of those people carried off to exile with the rest of the people during the time Jeremiah ministered in Judah. In the first 24 chapters of the book Ezekiel points out that judgment has come to the people of God for their own sin, that exile has not occurred by chance, and that it is the judgment of God on His people for their rebellious hearts against His Law and ways. From chapters 24-33 the focus changes a bit and rather than judging His own people for their rebellion God pronounces judgments on the nations around Israel for their refusal to obey Him. When we come to Ezekiel 33 God changes His tone. After pronouncing judgment in full on His own people and the nations surrounding them, we then see God promise restoration. Life and light will reign where only death and darkness has been present. God pour out His Spirit on His people, and the destroyed temple (the central symbol of God’s presence among His people) will be restored, and God will once again dwell with His people. But how will God do this? Why will God do this? When will God do this? All of these questions are answered in this book.
Our text, which was read earlier in the advent candle lighting, is Ezekiel 36:22-23. But to get the whole scene we must read this verse in its context which begins in 36:16, so, people of God, hear the Word of God: “The word of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, when the house of Israel lived in their own land, they defiled it by their ways and their deeds. Their ways before Me were like the uncleanness of a woman in her menstrual impurity. So I poured out my wrath upon them for the blood that they had shed in the land, for the idols with which they had defiled it. I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed through the countries. In accordance with their ways and their deeds I judged them. But when they came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned My holy name, in that people said of them, ‘These are the people of the Lord, and yet they had to go out of his land.’ But I had concern for My holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations to which they came.”
Here see the reason God judged His people. While they lived in their own land they didn’t live as God would’ve wanted them to live, rather they lived how they wanted to live and therefore defiled the land they lived in by their wicked ways and deplorable deeds. God says their ways and deeds were utterly disgusting to Him, they were unclean. Therefore v18-19 give us the consequences of such living. v18 God says he poured out His wrath upon them and v19 says God scattered them among the nations. They had been bowing down to other gods, slaughtering other men/women/children to these gods and therefore filled their own land with blood. Notice v20, God says that when His people got to the nations where He had driven them, His own name was profaned. How? The other nations saw Israelites streaming out of their own land and into their land and concluded that God was not powerful enough to keep His own people in His land, so they mocked God. God responds in v21 by saying when He heard His name being mocked He quote, “…had concern for His holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations to which they came.”
Now we come to our Advent text, 36:22-23, “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of My holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of My great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate My holiness before their eyes.” Before I mentioned that in this text we find the why, how, and when of God’s action to restore His people.
Why will God restore His people? Because He will act for the sake of His holy name, which is being profaned. How will God restore His people? By vindicating the holiness of His great name, so that all the nations (including Israel) will know that He is the Lord.
In response to having His name be profaned by His people’s wicked living and the nations wicked scoffing God is stirred up to act. Who is He acting for? Who is He acting in behalf of? Read v22, “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of My great name…” The reason God is about to vindicate His holiness before them is not because of His people, but because of His passion for the fame of His name. To put it another way, God is about to act for His glory. This is why it says “all shall know that I am the Lord” after He acts in behalf of His great name.
I cannot emphasize this detail enough. The phrase “…and you shall know that I am the Lord…” up to Ezekiel 36:22-23 occurs 57 times in the book of Ezekiel. The only other place in the Bible this phrase is used so repeatedly is in the book of Exodus, showing that God saved His people out of Egypt for His own glory, that Pharaoh and all Egypt would know who the Lord really is. What does this mean bringing this phrase into the context and issues at play within the book of Ezekiel? It means the reason God is about to show up and restore His people, the reason upholding and founding all other reasons, the reason that gives meaning and vibrancy to all other reasons is His own glory among the nations! This is why God saves His people! He did this way in Egypt and He is about to do it again when He saves them out of captivity in Babylon!
We have answered the question of why and how God will restore His people, but we have not yet answered the question of ‘when’ God will do this. God will act, not for the sake of His people but for the sake of His holy name, vindicating His holiness before all nations…but when will do this? We’ve mentioned in both Jeremiah and Isaiah the past two weeks that God initially did this when He led His people out of exile and ushered them back into the promise land. But once they came back, peace didn’t last, power was absent, and God’s glory seemed smaller than it had been before in the days of David and Solomon. So the people are left waiting for another time of restoration that wouldn’t just be in part, but whole, full, and final. Enter Christmas and our earlier question of getting down to the reason why we celebrate the momentous occasion of Christ’s advent among us each December. Why did Jesus come? In the book of Romans…after Paul’s initial pronouncement against all mankind both Jew and Gentile, that all are sinners, that all have fallen short, that all stand guilty and accused before God (whether they have the Law of God or not), and after Paul convinces us of our need to be redeemed, then and only then Paul gives us what has to be one of the most glorious, superb, magnificent, wonderful, and marvelous paragraphs in the whole Bible. In Romans 3:21-26 he says this, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in His divine forbearance He had passed over former sins. It was to show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
These 129 words of glory filled gospel saturated truth would take years to expound, but allow me to try and expound it briefly. I’ll tell you why afterwards. “But now…” is a might blast of comfort after such a lengthy description of our sin. Things are now different, how so? Righteousness, the same righteousness revealed in the gospel (1:16-17), the same righteousness we suppress though clearly revealed in creation (1:18-20), the same righteousness the Law and our consciences condemn us for not having we lack (1:21-3:20), that righteousness of God has now been revealed? How has it been revealed? Through faith in Jesus Christ. Yes, all lack this righteousness, all are sinners and have fallen short, but are made righteous by His grace as a gift, redeemed by Christ, whom God put forward and displayed to be the atoning sacrifice in His blood. How is His bloody sacrificial act of atonement applied to us? We receive it by faith. Why did God do this? (Remember Ezekiel 36?) To make it known that He is holy and righteous. Why would God need to make it known? Because in His divine patience He passed over sins long ago. So the atoning work of Jesus showed that God is still righteous and that He simultaneously, without losing His righteousness or compromising His justice, makes sinners who have faith in Jesus righteous! Here redemption is disclosed, displayed, described, and delighted in by all those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ. That’s the wonder of these 129 words!
Do you see why we came here after seeing what God promised to do in Ezekiel 36? Do you see it? Romans 3 is the fulfillment of Ezekiel 36. God came and vindicated His holy name not for their sake but for His sake in crushing His Son on the cross. What? Paul said it. On the cross God publicly displayed His righteousness, slaughtering His Son for the sins of His people, and giving His people His Son’s holy and righteous credit in our account. This is the glorious exchange on the cross, where God vindicated the holiness of His great name for all who have eyes to see. But think about it, where does the road to the cross begin? The manger. The incarnation. But bring the whole of Ezekiel 36 forward with it: God did not carry out the whole of the incarnation for His people’s sake, He did it for the sake of His name which had been profaned among the nations, to vindicate His holiness, or as Paul said it, “It was to show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” So why did Jesus come? What the reason beneath all other reasons that the first Christmas occurred? Jesus came for God, and as a result of His advent here all nations now know that God is the Lord. This is another link to our text and Advent. Who saw the Christmas star and traveled to see the Son? Not Jews but Gentile magi. The fame of His name sent the Son of God to earth, the nations saw it, and now that more nations would see the fame of His name God now sends us to all nations with the message of the Gospel.
How is this hitting you? Do you see all of this God-centered Christmas reality as good news for you? If you’re having trouble with this, here’s another reason why this is such good news for us. Go back to Ezekiel to see what happens in the rest of the chapter 36. Specifically v25-27 to note the results of God having concern for His holy name, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes and be careful to obey My rules.”
These verses describe in great detail the benefits God’s people receive when God comes to vindicate the holiness of His great name. You see, you and I are people with a heart that is naturally stony and hard. Our only hope of salvation is for God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to remove our hard stony hearts and give us new hearts that are moldable and soft, fit for His forming and purposes. What is needed is not merely a new ethical direction or a deeper resolve or stronger decision to live a better life. What is needed is not a new set of clever strategies, or a spiritual retreat for rehabilitation seeking to make us live better lives from the same resources. We need to become new in every meaning of the term or else there is no hope for change. The fall totally broke us, and now we find ourselves in need of a complete transformation from the inside out, and in these verses God promises that He’ll do it. When the fullness of time came, God sent forth His Son, Christmas (!), and the nations began streaming to Him, and as His gospel went out people heard it and put their faith in Him. When they did what did they find? A new heart, a new Spirit, a new obedience. A change so deep in us that it effects what we desire. You know what Jesus calls this change in John 3? The new birth, being born again. This is good news of great joy. This is a call for unspeakable joy. God has come for His fame and the very people who deserved exile for our sin now by faith get benefits we don’t deserve! Benefits that transform our very existence. Now we can say with utter confidence, “I know I am not yet what I ought to be, I know I am not yet what I hope to be, but praise His grace I also know that I am no longer what I used to be!” I am new!!
But why would He show such favor to such underserving sinners like you and I? Look at 36:32 and see the same thing we’ve been lingering on this morning, “It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord God; let that be known to you.” This great work of God in the Incarnation, to clear His name from being profaned, to proclaim His holiness, to give sinners exactly what we need for salvation, God does for His own glory. God wants us to know it. “Let that be known to you.”
I want to bring all this to close with a question. Do you know this, or do you know this? It’s not as pointless a question as you may think, and your answer to it reveals whether you’re a believer or an unbeliever. Many in our world are familiar with the Christmas story, many know the details of it, but do those many truly know it? You see, the difference between believers and unbelievers isn’t knowledge, the difference is deeper. The matter of knowledge about the Christmas story is by and large the same between believers and unbelievers. You know what’s not the same? While the matter of knowledge may be the same the manner of knowing is vastly different. On one hand unbelievers may know a great deal, they may know the same Christmas story we know, but in all of their knowing they don’t see in it anything of worth, anything of greatness, anything of a holy and heavenly light that captivates them and draws them in. The believer, on the other hand, knows this Christmas story and in their knowing the see beauty and glory and worth and excellence and gravity and gladness and hope because they see in it a soul saving transforming light.
So I return to closing question. Do you know the Christmas story, or do you know the Christmas story? Do you now know, what Cindyloowho knew and what the Grinch learned, that Christmas isn’t about ribbons or tags or boxes or bags? Do you now know that Christmasmeans…just a little bit more? May you know and may your knowledge of this story give you a great and vast knowledge of the God who advented among us for His great glory!
John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation: Three Classic Works by John Owen (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2006) page 117.