Poor Titus! I chose to focus on Titus because Christmas Eve is the only time in the entire, three-year lectionary that Titus is ever recommended reading; and even now, shoehorned in alongside the Christmas story as told in the Gospel of Luke, poor Titus doesn’t stand a chance. Besides, on the eve of the most anticipated, most costly, and most celebratory holiday on our culture’s calendar, Titus spends his meager time in the lectionary limelight reminding us to live “self-controlled, upright, and godly lives.” I mean, is this the guy you want sitting next to you at Christmas dinner?
In Khaled Hosseini’s bestselling novel The Kite Runner, there is a phrase that stirs the heart and drives the plot: “There is a way to be good again.” The central character, Amir, betrays his boyhood friend, Hassan, in a way that leads to tragedy and suffering. The knowledge of his transgression plagues Amir throughout his life. As an adult, he receives a note from an old family friend who knew about this transgression. The note contains the simple words: “There is a way to be good again.” This eventually leads him on a journey on behalf of Hassan who, with his wife, was murdered several years before. At great risk to his own life, Amir locates and rescues Hassan’s son.
“There is a way to be good again.” This is an evocative phrase. It’s not just about exploiting an overactive conscience; rather, it taps into that deep yearning we have to be better than we are. It also reveals the deep doubt we harbor that there is any real hope of becoming other than what and who we are. Perhaps some of you went to church on Christmas Eve because somewhere in your subconscious mind, you felt a yearning to hear words like, “There is a way to be good again.” On this night, of all nights, it seems like maybe—just maybe—there is something to this outrageous, mysterious claim that God in Christ has made a way for redemption. That, to use Titus’ phrase, “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” If you are straining under the weight of accumulated lost opportunities, betrayals, broken promises, and failures to love others as you ought, God has a gift for you.
It’s remarkable, when I think about it, that God could have anything for one such as I. Surely I have done nothing to deserve God’s favor. And yet the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all,” and in this truth, I find that “there is a way to be good again.”
It is at this crossroads of thought that Titus—silly little Titus who wants to be heard over the clamor of singing choirs of angels and the bleats of shepherds’ sheep—has wisdom to share. Did you notice that in his few verses, he invites us to juxtapose “self-control” with being “zealous for good deeds?” How can someone be self-controlled and zealous at the same time? What’s this about?
The driving force behind Titus’ exhortations is not buttoned-down behavior. He’s not trying to repress our passions; he is trying to redirect them. What Titus has in mind is a release of redemptive energy, a full-throated celebration of God’s gift of grace—a celebration that not only acknowledges the grace of God which has appeared but also participates in that gift of grace, bringing salvation to all. Titus teaches us to “renounce impiety and worldly passions,” and to live self-controlled, upright, godly lives instead. In the context of Christmas, I hear Titus saying, “By all means, be overjoyed during this season and on this night! Sing songs! Give gifts! Kiss your crush under the mistletoe; why not? But celebrate the grace of God which has appeared, bringing salvation to all, not the awesome deal you got on a Blu-ray player for your son by chop-blocking an old lady in the electronics department of Wal-mart to get it first.” When we talk about “impiety and worldly passions” in our modern context, nothing comes to mind more quickly than the soul-crushing consumerism that has become so synonymous with Christmas itself that some families have to cut their Thanksgiving holidays short so that retail workers can cater to our “worldly passion” for getting our shop on. Titus reminds us that it doesn’t have to be this way; Christmas is about something else! “There is a way to be good again.” What if we loved our neighbors—feeding those who are hungry, clothing those who are naked, visiting those who are sick or in prison—with the same passion with which we chase the latest fad, stalk our favorite celebrities, or stampede one another for the best discounts?
Titus empowers us to consider how our preparation for God’s grace can become our participation in God’s grace. By all means, let us be zealous for Christmas! Not the world’s Christmas, but the one that participates in the appearance of God’s grace by sharing God’s grace with the world. Let us be zealous for “good deeds,” as Titus says, that show that we have received God’s grace and that God’s grace has transformed us into something different—something “good again.”
See, the heavy weight of our unworthiness is not to be shoved out of sight and out of mind when we enter the sanctuary. Rather, it belongs there. Amidst all the flickering candles and lowing cattle and shining stars and watching shepherds, we are drawn to the light of the manger—we of imperfect lives and impious hearts—and to God’s promise that with the appearance of his grace in the one who was born in Bethlehem, “there is a way to be good again.”
Jesus Christ is God’s gift to us. We didn’t earn this gift—for one cannot earn a gift, it can only be given freely. But as the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, how can we respond? What gift have we to set before the newborn king? Might I suggest one of the most time-honored of Christmas traditions: re-gifting?
We’ve probably all “re-gifted” at some time or another, right? We’ve taken a gift given to us and—because it didn’t fit, or we already had one, or it wasn’t the right style, or we were simply desperate—we rewrapped it and gave it to someone else. I want to actually recommend that we re-gift this Christmas, giving to Jesus the only gift we can give: the gift he first gave us. Since, in Jesus Christ, God has reconciled us to himself, renewed our relationship with him, given us the gift of “a way to be good again,” and given us our very selves—the selves that God had always intended us to be—the only things we can reasonably give in return are those same selves. The only gift appropriate for us to give to God, given the gift we have received in Jesus Christ, is our whole self: all of us, from our bodies to our actions to our thoughts to our attitudes. As we prepare for the glory of God which is to come, let us also participate in it by being who God has created us, redeemed us, and continually sustains us to be.
What irony, that amidst all the poetry of the prophets and the pageantry of the Gospel of Luke, Titus is the one who reminds us what Christmas is all about. “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all… While we wait for the blessed hope and the epiphany of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ,” let us renounce our impiety and worldly passions, and instead embrace the self-control, uprightness, and godliness that glorifies God and marks us as God’s own people, zealously living a life of hope, peace, joy, and love.