Billy Graham preached the following Christmas message at the White House in Washington, D.C., Sunday, Dec. 16, 1973.
This has been a very disturbing year in American history. Millions of Americans at this moment are confused, discouraged, cynical, frightened and disillusioned. Each day seems to add to our problems.
In the midst of all this upheaval and crisis and difficulty and problems and fear comes the message of Christmas with all of its hope, goodwill and cheer.
I think the message of Christmas has been terribly misapplied and misunderstood for many years. Some think of business profits, shopping, gifts, tinsel, toys and celebration. Others think only of Bethlehem, of the star in the sky, shepherds in the field and angels singing. Still others cynically ask, “Where is this Prince of Peace in a world filled with so much trouble?”
But the real Christmas message goes far deeper. It answers all the great questions that plague the human race at this hour. The Christmas message is relevant, revolutionary and reassuring to us today. I believe it can be summed up in three words: a cradle, a cross and a crown.
First, the cradle. On that first Christmas night, the Bible tells us about the angel coming to those fearful shepherds and saying, “Fear not, I bring you good news” (Cf. Luke 2:10). What is the real meaning of that Good News?
During World War II, many a mother would help her children remember their father, who was away at war. One mother I heard about took her son every day into the bedroom and showed him a large portrait of his father. One day the little boy said, “Mom, wouldn’t it be great if Dad could just step out of the frame?”
That’s what happened that first Christmas. For centuries people had looked into the heavens longing for God to step out of the frame, and at Bethlehem that’s exactly what God did.
Incredible and unbelievable as it may appear to a modern man, the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ was a visitor from outer space. He was God Incarnate. That virgin-born baby was God in human form. He humbled Himself. He took the form of a servant. He was made in your likeness and mine. He identified Himself with the problems of the human race. And thus it was that the Apostle John wrote, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father” (John 1:14).
What a difference the baby born in Bethlehem’s manger 2,000 years ago makes to our world today: the educational systems He has inspired; the social reforms that His teachings have instituted; and the transformation of families and lives that have come about as a result of a baby born at Bethlehem! The whole world was thinking of Caesar. The whole world was thinking of Rome. But in God’s eternal plan, He was thinking of a baby in a manger in the little tiny town of Bethlehem.
Second, there’s the cross. Christmas, to have meaning, cannot be separated from the cross. The angel said at the birth of Jesus, “He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Jesus Himself said, speaking just before His death, “For this cause was I born” (John 18:37). He was the only person in history who was born with the purpose of dying. The Apostle Paul, years later said, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).
The central message of Christmas is that Jesus Christ, by His death and resurrection, can transform both individuals and society. Almost everyone at some time or another feels moral guilt and failure. In every newspaper or magazine that we pick up, and in every newscast that we watch, we see a picture of hate and lust and greed and prejudice and corruption—manifested in a thousand ways. The fact that we have police and jails and military forces indicates that something is radically wrong with human nature.
The Bible teaches that the human race is morally sick. This disease has affected every phase of our life in society. The Bible calls this disease by an ugly, three-letter word: sin.
The Bible teaches that the only cure for sin is the blood that Christ shed on the cross. Christ became the Lamb of God who bled and died on the cross for our sins.
The cross and the resurrection stand today as man’s only hope. It was on Good Friday and Easter that God did for man what man could not do for himself. From these momentous events, God is saying to sinful man, “I love you. I love you so much I gave my Son.” But He’s saying more than that. He’s saying, “I can forgive you, because of what Jesus did on the cross.” This is good news this Christmas!
Some may dismiss it as ridiculous that a man dying 2,000 years ago could be relevant today. Paul anticipated that we’d say that. He said, “The preaching of the cross is, I know, nonsense to those who are involved in this dying world, but to us who are being saved from that death it is nothing less than the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18, Phillips).
I believe that America stands on the threshold of divine judgment. Morally, socially, economically, politically, spiritually, we are in deep trouble. We’ve turned away from God, and every month seems to take us further away from the only One who can reverse the tide, forgive our sins and forestall the imminent judgment. We must alter our course if we are going to see many more Christmas seasons as a free people.
Our greatest need is a change in the hearts of people. That is why Jesus said, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). That’s why He said, “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). Paul, in his famous sermon at Mars Hill, said, “God … commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world” (Acts 17:30-31).
Who should repent? Everybody. This is what the cross calls for. The heart of its message is simple: Repent or perish.
The Scripture says, “A broken and a contrite heart God will not despise” (Cf. Psalm 51:17). If we as individuals and as a nation would humble ourselves and turn from our sins, God has promised forgiveness, healing to the nation and eternal life to the individual.
Third, there’s the crown. Chiseled into the cornerstone of the United Nations building is a quotation from the Bible that has never yet been fulfilled. It reads, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). This is a thrilling thought. It has often been repeated by those who long for peace. However, this quotation must not be taken out of context.
The passage speaks of the time when the Messiah will reign over the whole earth. This is the era about which Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer to pray: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). This is the time when He who came as the baby of Bethlehem shall come back as King of kings and Lord of lords.
The Bible teaches that there will be an end to history as we know it. Man will have his last Armageddon. But when it seems that man is about to destroy himself, God will intervene. Christ will return.
At the cradle, He was in the stall of an animal. At the cross, He wore a crown of thorns. But when He comes again, it will be as Commander-in-Chief of the armies of Heaven. He will take control of this war-weary world and bring the peace that we strive for and long for. A new world will be formed, a new social order will emerge. Sin will be eliminated. Tears will be wiped from every eye. Disease shall be no more, and even death will be eliminated from the human scene. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and war shall be no more.
This is the promise of Christmas. This is our hope. This is the Christmas star that lights our darkness. This is the assurance that a new day is coming, through the Messiah, whose name is called by Isaiah the prophet, “Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
This is God’s gift of Christmas: the cradle—His Son; the cross—His life; the crown—His coming kingdom. ©1974 BGEA
Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version. The Scripture quotation marked Phillips is taken by permission from The New Testament in Modern English, Revised Edition, translated by J.B. Phillips, ©1958, 1960, 1972 J.B. Phillips, Macmillan Publishing Company Inc., New York, New York; Wm. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., London, England.
Photo: Russ Busby/©1973 BGEA