Christmas and Jesus don’t really mix anymore. At least that’s what our culture says.
Jesus, the relic of cultures, has (like Elvis) mostly left the building. And at Christmas time it is no different. For a lot of people (But certainly not all) Christmas is our cultures favourite times of year, and it is that for many reasons: family, friends, the gift of giving, the humbling gift of receiving. When it comes to the religious symbolism in Christmas, some people gather to celebrate the birth of Jesus more explicitly then the greater population. However, for most people, Jesus is mostly a hallmark card and most people don’t find significance in Christmas as a celebration of Jesus’ birth. Jesus is a relic, a nice story involving three wise men, a barn, and a baby all fitted into a clay nativity scene at the corner of your local shopping centre. Jesus (like Elvis) has left the building. After all, nice stories are just that aren’t they? Nice stories.
During Christmas family and friends will gather and have long conversations. Sometimes about the year, or about politics, or about pet peeves, maybe some will discuss their toys, or perhaps (this year especially) talk about new movie releases (The force is strong with that last conversation topic…). Whatever we talk about, we will gather around, eat & drink, make jokes, exchange gifts and have Christmas. And yet right in the middle of what seems to be the mundane, people will state their opinions or beliefs about whatever things, and whether they know it or not, there will be a whole stake of bias and assumptions that form their conversation. Even in the mundane there will be ‘philosophy’ going on. And if politics somehow comes up in conversation then the whole notion of power will be bought into the sphere of the somewhat mundane. And at some point someone will suggest how things could be ‘better’- in regards to absolutely anything! So there you have it. Mundane conversations are loaded with topics that we only shallowly talk about.
What does the talking about what we believe or our opinions over anything have to do with a story of little baby Jesus? What does the complaining of politics have anything to do with a Middle Eastern child? And if religion is bought up in conversation, what does a story based 2000 years ago have any relevance today? To most people the answer is that it doesn’t. “We live in a modern world” we say, “those stories and just nice stories; now let’s move on with life”. What if there was more and it’s that we aren’t willing to go there?
Now let’s set the scene: a poor neighbourhood (think of your local poor neighbourhood) and a teenage couple tell you that they have a baby who is literally from God and (at the same time) is God. Now let’s be honest, you’re going to think they are high. But suppose that somehow, in a magical way, what they are saying is all true. That God is becoming a human in the backwater through a poor and afraid teenage mum. “I have been told that this baby will change the world” she says, “He has come to make all things new”. Riiiight. But suppose it was all true- do you see how your family conversations would change? If God had rocked up into a world which largely didn’t even buy the whole God thing then what you believed about the nature of religion, truth, what it means for the world to be fixed, the notion of what true power is (etc.) would all change. Christmas wouldn’t be the same. Now if what happened to a Middle Eastern couple 2000 years ago was true; if the nativity scene was true, then everything does have the power to change. But why? And how?
Christians claim that the only God (And to the first hearers of the story, specifically the Only God known as the ancient Jewish people’s God, Yahweh) had become a human being. Christians call that event of God becoming man the ‘incarnation’.Think about that: the creator of the stars, the nebulas, the galaxies, had poured his being into the fragile body of a baby boy in the low socioeconomic area of the town of Bethlehem unto a couple who were barely grown up. Crazy right? And yet, if true, changes everything- Including the underlying beliefs of our mundane Christmas conversations.
This event, if true, changes everything in four ways:
-Our understanding of God
What do we think when we think of God? Even if you don’t believe in Him, what images come to your end at the immediate thought? Old man with a beard? Boring? Detached? If Jesus is God come to us in a baby and in the ghetto, it tells us something about the very nature of the God of the Universe. He gets into the mess. He goes to the darkest allies & life’s messiest places and He becomes present in the mess in the here & now. God’s own self-understanding of holiness doesn’t mean some sort of clean and sparkly religious piety (which is what a lot of people think Christians mean when they spout phrases like “God is Holy”) but rather is that of a God who, though perfect, isn’t distant or indifference to the world that we are in. And this isn’t just exampled in His birth, even in His life He is accused as being a “drunkard and a glutton” because He actually goes to the places where the drunkards hangout. In His life He physically heals people that no one in society would have gone near (the lepers, the homeless). This isn’t the description of God you probably are used to hearing about, but it’s the God of the universe. Not bad for a baby in a manger. Imagine how that would change the way we do Christmas conversation.
-Our understanding of the very nature of truth
Truth is a complicated topic in our society. It’s statements like “science has proved…” or “History tells us…” or “I saw him do the crime” or “I believe this about spirituality and you believe that; it’s all a matter of our perspective” that reveal the complexity of how we go about truth in society. Generally speaking our experiences like education, up-bringing, culture (etc.) will inform how we choose to believe what we believe, and for some of us that includes religion.. No one is immune to this process of belief formation through life, and it’s in this on-going and ever active process that we constantly sway to and fro in the formation of our views of the universe. Even if we never articulate them, we have them. Now how do I know this? Easy: tell me your answer to these seven questions: What is prime reality—the really real? What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us? What is a human being? What happens to a person at death? Why is it possible to know anything at all? How do we know what is right and wrong? What is the meaning of human history? What personal, life-orienting core commitments are consistent with? Even if you say “I don’t know” to some of them it tells you about your view of the world (“I don’t know”….because? Bingo!). But what happens when we say something like “God has come to us”? If there is a God who created all things, then God would have to have the best view of all reality. As Creator, His understanding of truth, reality, and everything will be completely informed and created by Him. So what happens in this God-comes-to-us event? Think about it: people having been staring into the foggy sky for centuries and have discussed, if beyond the ‘fog’, whether there is a point of view of reality where one can interpret all things perfectly. Suppose there was, we are still stuck in our world with our narrow and subjective views of reality- our distance to the mysterious objective and our position (as the subjective) is the problem we have and will always have. But what if the mysterious objective came to us? What if the ultimate point of view came down to us? We would still be subjective and opinionated from our point of view of this objective-come-to-us, but we certainly couldn’t say whatever we wanted anymore with any real degree of integrity. Why? Because If Truth is becomes a person who we can then love- to seek to understand and remove our bias- then, whilst we will always be making opinions, the closeness of the objective is the game changer; for He is no longer a fuzzy idea but a person to hug, someone to know, someone to discover. The birth of Jesus tells us that the only Objective God has become a person. Now I know any crazy man can say they are a God, but not any crazy man can back this up, and in His life, Jesus takes basics elements and normaties of our reality (that no one challenges) and turns them upside down: He changes molecule structures of water to wine, instantly grows body parts out of nothing, controls the weather without a machine, and in His finally act dies & comes back to life but not with a normal body, but as a body which has reversed the laws of decay, a non-decaying physical body. Do you realise that, if this is true, than His claims to Divinity are legit. And if that’s true, then His point of view of reality is also legit. And if that’s true, then truth has come close to us in Person. That’s a game changer in the world of philosophy. All other philosophers and religious leaders say “I think I know the truth”, Jesus comes and says “I am the truth come to you”. Not bad for a baby in a manger. Imagine how that would change the way we do Christmas conversation.
-Our understanding of Politics
Central to the Baby story isn’t just that God has come to us, but very specific in the beliefs of Christians is this: that Jesus is also the King of Kings. Now the word “King” sounds very old but it’s simply conveying that the baby is considered the ultimate ruler of the Human race. Think “President of Presidents” or “Prime Minister of Prime Ministers”. Now we don’t like that do we? We don’t like the idea of someone ruling over us? We are naturally very sceptical of power today for we have seen a history of leaders ‘playing’ with us through their positions of power, and what some leaders have done have been very dehumanising (think of Hitler for example). But if you break that down carefully what you realise is that the problem isn’t power perse but the nature of the one in power. After all, a country could have an amazing and brilliant leader who is in power- but they use their power for good. It’s about the person in power not power itself. And Baby Jesus, as the proclaimed and arriving ruler of humanity- does power very differently. And we see this from the very moment of His birth. Jesus as a King isn’t born in a palace- He is born in the ghetto. Jesus as a King isn’t clearly portrayed as a King of the Kingdom- He is born as a King but under the rule of a foreign Kingdom (back then it was The Roman Empire). His title as ‘King of Kings’ was already widely in use and was exclusively used to describe the Roman Emperor Caesar. And yet He was (and Is) The King. In today’s world people rule through the love of power, but Jesus’ model of what true power is wasn’t “the love of power” but “the power of love”, and the way He did power wasn’t in getting people to serve Him but in first Him serving people. He is the mind boggling and contradicting Servant-King; a King who is a Servant, a Servant who is a King. He is the one who say that He won’t use violence to conquer the world, and He won’t only love His clan but His enemies as well. He won’t put the powerful on a pedestal but will make the weak ones of the world His most sought after. And later in His life we are told that, as a King, He gets recognised as the King of the World. But not through millions of dollars poured into winning an election, but through Him dying on an execution cross set up by the ruling Roman Government. We are told that this is the place of power. That this totally defeating event, we are told, is actually the upside down way God becomes King and defeats the powers of darkness, evil, sin, injustice and death; it’s how he defeats the powers of Rome and the Powers of the world. It’s how He wins the battle and becomes the King of Kings. He is a King who becomes a King by dying, but unlike other Kings, this death doesn’t signify the end of His reign but the beginning: He rises from the dead, and in His physical resurrection He shows just how much love & His way of doing Kingdom can wake up even the dead. Not bad for a baby in a manger. Imagine how that would change the way we do Christmas conversation.
-Our Understanding of rescue
We are in a world that is divided by what the problem(s) of the world is and therefore what the solution is. We have theories of what the ‘bottom line’ problem of the world is, and we have theories about how to finish this ‘bottom line’. Just before Jesus was born, the teenage mother Mary was told that Jesus would be the ‘God among them’ and that He would ‘rescue them of their sins’. Yep, that word sin. I’d recommend you read my other blogs about how our culture have the completely wrong image of that word, and that the word ‘sin’ from the Bible’s point of view is actually more illuminating, interesting, and relevant then what you think it means. But Him coming to ‘rescue us from sin’ tells us that the problem is sin and that He is coming to save us from it. Sin is that rebellious nature in us that says “my way of being human is better” and it has lead us down a spiral of evil in this world. The announcement of the angel that visited Jesus wasn’t based in the opinions of our cultures perception of what’s wrong with the world. The angel is telling you and me that our perception of what’s wrong with the world is to “shallow”- our problem is ‘deeper’ and so the solution must ‘reach down’ further. But the angel doesn’t do the religious thing and tell Mary (and you and I) that “You must become pretty and clean so that you can reach up to Heaven and be whisked away” but rather the angel says that “This world is messy, so messy that only God-in-the flesh can fix it, and He will come down and fix this world- and I mean this world, oh and don’t think for a second that He will bring an escape plan to get you out of this world; no, He will bring the remedy to fix this one through His powerful & unique work that He will do in this world”. His message flies in the face against religion and against the cultures perception of problem & rescue. Not bad for a baby in a manger. Imagine how that would change the way we do Christmas conversation.
Now I know all of this presupposes you chose to believe in this stuff (By the way, if you are interested from a purely historical point of view about Jesus’ life hit me up a message and I’ll recommend you further material to explore that…) but if this was all real then that nativity scene isn’t just a nice scene: it’s the story of a permanent change to the whole way we look at the universe & the present. The belief that this story marked the beginning of the true story about how God would change the world forever.
Imagine how our Christmas conversation would change….And imagine how you would change. This talk of faith being irrelevant would come to a close in your life if you believed all this was true- the way you talk & act out the reality of truth, the way you talk & act out the reality of what true power is, the way you talk & act out the reality of God not as a distance being but a present person, the way you talk & act out the reality of the problem of our world and the solution of it. But as I have hinted throughout this blog, this birth was only the beginning of the story, and to fully grasp this you do need to know the whole picture. Christians are looking back and remembering the beginning. The middle, which I would say Jesus’ life & death, is central to the story of how God moved the world forward towards it’s glorious future ends. And the end of the story- Jesus resurrection, return to Heaven, and His eventual return to fully implement His finished victory achieved in the ‘middle’- is what’s coming. And the present is about Jesus followers who have decided to be part of His present project of implementing His already victory into the world whilst anticipating for Him to return and finish the job. Not bad for a baby in a manger.
May you come to see that the Baby Jesus is one of the most powerful events of human history. May you come & see how this nativity scene can change your world. And may you be filled with the love of the one who saves.