Gallery of Christmas Portraits: A Dying Savior
Saying No to Death at Christmas!
What if I were to tell you that I wanted to talk about death this morning, what would you think of me?
Would you call me Ebenezer Scrooge, as someone who never could stand the merrymaking of Christmas and was more wrapped up in ghosts of yesterday, today and tomorrow?
Or would you call me the Grinch who stole Christmas with a heart two sizes too small?
Who wants to talk about death days before Christmas? Death-talk should be banned during the month of December, right?
We want to talk about lights, birth, joy, peace, hope and love, but not about death.
If truth be known, we never want to talk about death and it doesn’t matter which month.
The topic of death is far too morbid a thought. We’re way too busy living our lives, enjoying all that life has to bring, that the thought of death never enters our mind.
But if we must, we now have professionals who take care of all things death, right?
Gone are the days of families washing the bodies of deceased loved ones. Gone are the days of wakes being held in people’s homes.
Gone are the days of loved ones digging holes and placing simple coffins into the ground, and then grabbing a shovel to fill it back in.
All of it is removed from us and placed into the hands of professionals, in whose hands the dead look better than when they were alive, right?
Steven Mosley in talking about the sanitizing trends of death of our modern times wrote:
“It had always had a cosmetic covering… An elderly lady, bent and withered from decades of hard labor had passed away. In the elegant coffin she looked almost better then in real life. The mortician had added color to her cheeks, straightened her limbs a bid and simulated a properly peaceful countenance”
The point is that the last thing we want to talk about is death.
So why on earth would I want to bring this up days before Christmas?
Why? Because for one reason death doesn’t take December off.
Death doesn’t look to make an appointment with us nor does it come at a convenient time any more than it waits until we are ready for it.
If I had any control, I would say that death should always come in November. It’s dreary, drizzly, with barren trees and winds howling. It’s a perfect month for death to show up, right?
But death doesn’t think so. It comes when it comes – in the lazy days of summer, in the beauty of early fall, in the promise of spring. It will even come at Christmas.
When you read the obituaries right after Christmas you will be astonished at the fact that people even die on December 24th and 25th .
I have buried people just before Christmas and during the Christmas week. I even buried a gentleman once on Christmas Eve!
In fact, the day we buried this man I was struck by the irony of how on the same day we commemorated both birth and death.
That to me is one of life’s great ironies. Birth and death go hand in hand.
Hints of Death at His Birth
Yet why would birth and death in the same day have irony? Look no further than the birth of Jesus to find hints of death nearby even then.
It’s morbid, I know. A birth is all about life. It’s about freshness, new beginnings and the potential of a life unfolding. It’s absolutely beautiful, which I know from first hand experience.
But at the birth of Jesus were whispers and rumors of death.
It was soon after his birth, during the time when the three Wise Men from the east came to pay homage, that whispers of death first surfaced.
It was during this time that King Herod made plans to kill the baby Jesus.
Not only were the Wise Men directed to take a different path home so as to avoid Herod, but Joseph was also directed by an angel to flee to Egypt with these instructions: “Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
Of course, we know the rest of the story of how when Herod couldn’t find Jesus he “gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under.” Matt. 2:16.
Estimates place the number of dead babies at 20 that day. It was a great tragedy at the hand of a mad man that devastated many families. 20 babies died. How very sad.
So death was never far away from the birth of Jesus. Not only the present danger of death if Herod would have had his way, but also the hint of his eventual death in the gifts given by these Wise Men.
“They opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.” Matt. 2:11
These were not just random gifts nor were they typical gifts purchased in the first century equivalency of the modern day shopping mall or retail outlet.
Each gift was carefully chosen for its meaning and significance.
Gold was fit for a king, to signal that Jesus would eventually be the King of Kings and also the king of our hearts.
Frankincense, the gift of priests, was the sweet perfume used as worship incense that rose up to heaven; pointing to Jesus as our High Priest who makes intercession or makes things right between us and our Maker.
Both gifts were pointing to the child’s destiny as King and Priest.
The last gift is the most troublesome of the three, for the gift of myrrh was always associated with death. It was the spice used to embalm the dead.
In fact, years later Nicodemus along with Joseph of Arimathea would embalm the body of Jesus using myrrh.
“Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen.” John 19:39-40
Not only upon his death was myrrh used but also while he was left dying on the cross: “They offered him wine mixed with myrrh.” Mark 15:23
This was the myrrh given at his birth. The hints of death were everywhere.
The Shadow of Death
One of the most startling images of Jesus captured by an artist was the Shadow of Death by the artist Holman Hunt.
Painted in the late 19th Century and displayed at the Manchester City Art Gallery, it depicts a young Jesus working in his father’s carpenter shop, stretching after presumably bent over the wooden trestle to do his carpentry work.
I love Ralph West’s interpretation of the portrait:
“He lifts His eyes toward heaven, and the look on His face is one of pain, ecstasy or both. He stretches, raising both arms above His head. As He does so, the evening sunlight streaming through the open door casts a dark shadow in the form of a cross on the wall behind Him, where His tool rack looks like a horizontal bar on which His hands have been crucified. The tools remind us of the fateful hammer and nails. In the left background, a woman kneels among the wood chippings, her hands resting on the chest in which the rich gifts of the Magi are kept. We cannot see her face because she has averted it, but we know it is Mary. She looks startled at her son's cross-like shadow on the wall.”
A strong foreshadow of what was to come out of the days in his father’s carpenter’s shop.
No denials or attempts to sanitize it. The shadow of death followed him from his birth through to his formative years in his father’s woodshop, all the way into his public ministry.
John’s Death Portrait
Of all the Gospel accounts that traced his life and ministry, it was John’s Gospel where this portrait of the Shadow of Death becomes most prominent.
John is the one who quotes Jesus the most as talking about his own hour or time of death, and in doing so emerges as the gospel writer that paints Jesus’ death portrait.
So he quotes Jesus saying things such as:
“My time has not yet come.” (2:1)
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (12:23)
“Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world.” (13:1)
In fact, for anyone who had any doubt as to what he meant by his time has come, John quotes him as saying: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” (10:11)
John was the one who not only painted the portrait of Jesus’ awareness of his own coming death but also the portrait of death’s relentless pursuit of Jesus: “For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him.” (5:18)
Of course, we know how many attempts on his life were made during the course of his ministry.
This is John’s death portrait of Jesus. Yet the fascinating thing is that John’s death portrait paints the image of death’s inability to conquer Jesus until such a time as being permitted to.
“They tried to seize him but no one laid a hand on him, because his time had not yet come.” (7:30)
“Some wanted to seize him but no one laid a hand on him.” (7:44)
In fact, so incapable was death’s ability to conquer Jesus without permission from God that when it’s messengers tried to arrest Jesus, John reports that “they drew back and fell to the ground.” (18:6)
The portrait of Jesus that emerges is one of his own mortality, death’s relentless pursuit of him from the days of his birth onward, and also death’s inability to conquer Jesus until the fullness of time had arrived and God had said so.
From Advent to Lent
The point of all this is not to be morbid nor to be Ebenezer Scrooge but simply to be true to who the biblical Jesus really was.
Popular culture has no problem with a cute baby in a manger but a suffering Savior dying violently on a cross is a completely different story.
Many find his death offensive; so people either sanitize his death or ignore it all together.
This propensity toward sanitization or minimization can affect even us.
In fact, I would say to you our tendency to spend more time in the advent season then in the lent season and the prominence of advent over lent should give us a reason for concern.
It is far easier to coo over a baby than it is to kneel down at the foot of a bloody cross.
Time and distance isn’t in our favor either. The years removed and the annual rituals of remembrance can actually have a numbing affect on us.
“We are of course removed some distance from Golgotha and its horrors. From our vantage point there’s always a danger of ornamenting Christ’s death into mere abstraction. We give earnest assent to the idea of his passing but rarely see or feel its drama. The cross is such a dissected, familiar theological category. We celebrate it in the comfortable and dignified confines of a sanctuary. It’s hard to really touch the brutality of that event.” Steven Mosley
It becomes a pageant and a seasonal event that gets tucked into Easter and is soon forgotten with the warmth of spring coming.
It’s time we lift Jesus out of the manger and embrace once again the notion of the suffering Savior who in a most vicious way yielded his life to death so that we could live.
May we never downplay Golgotha nor sanitize Calvary into anything other than a bloody spectacle that secured our salvation without which we would have no hope.
May we be as adamant as Paul was who declared boldly and strongly:
“We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” 1 Cor. 3:23-24
His Death for Our Success
Make no mistake about it; his death is absolutely critical to our success, without which you and I would not be what we are.
I want to finish this Christmas series in which we attempted to paint four different portraits of Jesus that better reflect who he really was by reminding us of the benefits of Jesus as the Dying Savior.
He not only makes us the apple of his eye nor the one who loves you enough to intrude into the messes of our lives nor even the compassionate friend who never leaves us, but He’s also the Savior who by his death and resurrection takes our sin away.
In many ways, that’s how I would like us to remember Jesus the most.
You may recall last Easter us talking about the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection. Let me close this morning by reminding you of those benefits.
1. His death was an act of substitution whereby Jesus died on that cross in our place
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Cor. 5:21
It should have been our death, should have been our penalty but he took it upon himself so that we would enjoy sins forgiven.
Through his death our sins are forgiven. Aren’t you glad for his death, this morning?
2. His death was an act of redemption whereby Jesus died to pay the ransom so as to set us free from Satan’s claim
“It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ.” 1 Peter 1:18, 19
The blood of Jesus paid your freedom from the chains and prison of sin.
His blood has bought your spiritual freedom! Aren’t you glad for his death, this morning?
3. His death was an act of reconciliation that took away the enmity between us and God
“We were reconciled to him through the death of his Son.”
As the carol writer said: “God and sinners reconciled!” Our sin brought about a great estrangement between God and us, which was settled once and for all when Jesus died for our sins!
His death brought about this great reconciliation. Aren’t you glad for his death, this morning?
4. His death was an act that turned away the wrath of God from us. We call that propitiation.
“God presented him as the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away sin through faith in his blood.” Rom. 3:25
Not only did our sin cause us to be estranged from God, it also offended him so profoundly that it triggered his wrath, which Jesus took fully upon him in his death.
His wrath toward you is no more. Aren’t you glad for his death, this morning?
The True Gifts of Christmas
Substitution, redemption, reconciliation and propitiation. These are the true gifts of Christmas.
Come to the foot not of the Christmas tree but of Calvary’s tree and take for yourself heaven’s gifts bought with the death of Jesus.
Take substitution by letting Jesus die in your stead.
Take redemption by letting Jesus buy your freedom from sin.
Take reconciliation by letting Jesus bring you back to the Father.
Take propitiation by letting Jesus take on him the wrath of God.
If you do nothing else this Christmas, receive heaven’s gifts brought to you by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Here you can find several messages. Feel free to write your thoughts or questions in the comment section.