I know it’s popular at this time of the year to see this sort of sermon: what if there were no Christmas. I’m not going to boor you with the absence of tinsel and of neighbors singing “Silent Night,” though. I’m asking a serious question, and one which every person on the earth ought to consider. Not, “What if there were no Christmas,” but instead: “What if there were no Christ?”
Neither do we need to make this a game of idle speculation, because Jesus himself addressed the question. He actually told a story about it. No doubt you know the story, but have you really understood that this is what it is, a story of life without a Messiah?
It happened one day when Jesus was teaching and the tax collectors and “sinners” drew near to him. The gospels sometimes employ the word “sinners” in the manner of the Pharisees, who did not view themselves as sinners at all, but only those who failed to live according to their own strict, warped interpretation of the law. The thing is, those “sinners” really were sinners in the true sense, but Jesus let them draw near anyway.
The Pharisees, however, did not approve. Their objection was rooted in an episode early in Jesus’ ministry (found in Luke 5:27-32) when Levi the tax collector became one of Jesus’ disciples. Levi threw a feast for his friends, and the Pharisees were horrified that Jesus attended. “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” they asked. His answer was simple yet profound: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
It was one of those tremendous moments when Jesus told us why he came – a moment much like when he would explain to Zacchaeus (himself a tax collector and a great sinner), “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (The story is in Luke 19:1-10.) Such moments give context and meaning to the startling events in and around Bethlehem during the reign of Caesar Augustus. The stable, the virgin, the angels singing to the shepherds, magi following a star – all this happened, and Jesus came, because the Son of Man was determined to seek and save the lost, to call sinners to repentance.
It is a wonderful answer for anyone who is a sinner, but it was not sufficient to the self-righteous Pharisees. They continued to demand an explanation every time that Jesus associated with those whom they called “sinners.” So on that particular day, when the undesirable ones were drawing near to hear the teaching of the Savior, the Pharisees complained again, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Jesus did not rebuke them directly, nor did he express again why he came. He responded instead in parables – three of them, in fact, which you may read in Luke 15.
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