If you’ve grown up in the post television world, it’s likely you have watched one or two Christmas specials. One of my favorites is “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in which Charlie Brown picks the most pitiful and neglected Christmas “tree” to bring home. This year I am preparing to give the Christmas Eve sermon. In anticipation of that opportunity I have been readings those neglected or underrepresented incarnation passages that don’t contain sheep, stars, angels, or wise men.
Humans are created for story and we are interested in almost anything if it given to us in the shape of a story. Case in point: although I am the opposite of a sports enthusiast I am a huge fan of sports movies because gifted writers focus on a few key characters, revealed their motivations, identified a conflict, plotted the most important moments and left out extraneous details. Yep, we sure like stories.
Problems arise in the real world when we over simplify stories. Important realities can get lost. The Christmas Story has a lot of rough edges and startling twists that don’t fit into the “all is calm, all is bright” vision of the holiday that we all enjoy. It’s important to remember that Matthew and Luke (the only two gospels from which we get the pieces of the popular narrative of Christmas) were NOT writing the “Christmas Story”. Those events we commemorate in December were a small part of a larger purpose. As Luke put it: “it seemed good to me also…to write an orderly account for you… that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” How can we recover for ourselves and our families the grand, pre-commercialized, story of Immanuel?
Step 1: Repentance
“At Christmas time? What are you a Scrooge? A Grinch? Christmas is for feeling good. What do I have to repent of?” No, really, recognize that our memories, cultural expectations, traditions and desires for Christmas may not entail the message that God’s word is telling us. Then ask the Holy Spirit to help you understand the incarnation of the Son of God more fully so it connects to the BIG STORY in a way that transforms you into the likeness of Jesus.
Step 2: Recognize the Author’s Intent
Even for the well-known Christmas passages, ask yourself why Matthew and Luke included certain details. Hint: It’s not to fill scroll space or provide a backstory for your nativity set.
- For what purpose are the genealogies (Matthew 1:1, and Luke 3:23) included?
- Why does Matthew focus on Kings, and foreign dignitaries (no shepherds, or Angelic host)?
- Why does an army (not a choir) of angels show up? Why are they praising God at the events they are now witnessing? Just what do their words really mean?
- Why does Luke include Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:25, 36)?
- In fact, why the whole temple scene in Luke chapter 2?
- Why does Luke include two long songs in chapter 1?
- What’s with the brutal scene in Matthew 2:16? There is no Herod figure in my nativity set. Why did Matthew include this information? It’s not in Luke’s version.
Step 3: Re-examine scripture to find the point of Christmas
Mine God’s word for Christmas gold and silver. A place to start might be the Old Testament passages quoted within Matthew and Luke. What’s the context of those passages?
- Genesis 3:15
- Genesis 12:1-3
- 2 Samuel 7
- Daniel 2:36-45
- Daniel 7:13-14
Turn to other books in the New Testament to find the significance of the Incarnation. Who was this “Son of God”, this “Word that was with God”? Were the biblical writers simply given us facts to be believed or were they describing the “engine” of our new life in Christ: live like your King, serve like your Savior.
- John 1:1-3, 14
- John 17:4-5
- Galatians 3:29-4:5
- Philippians 2:5-11
- Hebrews 2:10-18
- Romans 5:8
- Romans 6
- Romans 8:1-10
- Revelation 21 & 22
Step 4: Recommit to having a transformative Christmas
Can you look back and say that because of Christmas 2016 you were a more faithful spouse or parent, a more joyful child of God, a more faithful disciple in 2017? Or did the good feeling, wrapping paper and food give way to a ‘business as usual’? In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Scrooge promised to keep Christmas all year round. Let us commit to living the full gospel all year round in a deepening, life-transforming way. View the Incarnation as an example of how we ought to live (Philippians 2:5-11) along with the expectation of our glorification at Christ’s return.
Enjoy the family and friends, the warmth an laughter, the music and lights, the wonder and delight. It is a small taste of the Banquet we await with a certain hope because the God of Everything entered human history!