Today is New Year’s Eve. Christmas was 6 days ago. Every year, Christmas approaches with much anticipation. And every year it leaves with a sigh, ho-hum, and back we go to finish out the year. In truth, we’re probably glad when Christmas is over and done with. Sure, it was fun, we have some sweet family memories, less money in our checking account, a gift or two we were probably excited to receive, and it is just time to get on with what remains of the year.
What a loss. What a loss that we don’t carry with us for the rest of the year, or the whole year, the joy and excitement and awe of the Christmas season. Or is it because we fail to see and experience the joy and excitement and awe that Christmas should bring?
I’m not sure how to properly express the magnitude of all the Christmas means. I suppose I can’t express all, but when I think about our simplistic ways of talking about Christmas, it strikes me how far we miss the mark in understanding, or at least expressing understanding of, any of what Christmas means. Now, I’m not saying we don’t truly understand the implications, if we sit down and think about it, as much as our human minds can understand something so vast, but I wonder if our cute and heartwarming expressions of Christmas, and all the fun we try to cram into the season, affect our reverence and awe. I say “I wonder” more as a way to be tactful. Because in all honesty, I know it does. I know that the cuteness and sweetness and heart-warming-ness can leave our thoughts regarding Christmas devoid of holy reverence, devoid of a true appreciation for what it meant for the God of the Universe to enter into time and space as a man, with the end goal of being the Lamb of Sacrifice to pardon His people for all eternity, with the end end goal of coming back in glory at an unknown-to-us date and time, when He will once again enter into time and space to catch up His people to Himself, perfectly restored spiritually and physically, wiping out sin and evil altogether, and to finally – finally! – bring about a new Kingdom on earth where human beings enjoy perfect fellowship with God and each other. Wow.
We talk about Christmas as a celebration of “Jesus’s birthday,” as if it is simply some heavenly party. Such an understatement. This isn’t just a celestial birthday party. This is a miracle so vast even the angels were awed by it. A Heavenly army joined together to announce the birth of Christ to the frightened shepherds – what glory!
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13-14)
How much more glorious is the Child they announced! For the whole host of Heaven to come together, it took more than cuteness and sweetness and warm feelings. This story of Salvation, according to Peter, was something “into which the angels long to look.” (1 Peter 1:12) Think about that. Angels – beings who spend their existence in the presence of God Almighty, in the presence of the Godhead, of the entire Trinity together, who witnessed all of the Old Testament and everything leading up to and anticipating God’s descension to us – they were in awe and celebrated. This was a Story they watched unfold with great eagerness. That should be instructive to us.
I think about all the sweet Christmas songs and Christmas characters we want to relate to. Then I think of the innkeeper, a person not even mentioned, but who must have existed. Someone had to show the expectant mother the less than ideal place she was to give birth. Someone had to say, “There isn’t room.” Someone whose only role in the Christmas story is to turn away the earthly parents of the Living God, a man who was so close to the miracle of the Birth of Christ and apparently missed it altogether. We are so close to the Christmas story at Christmas time. And yet we can let the day go by and miss the true Story, or forget about it as soon as December 26th rolls around.
Heaven forbid that characterize us, especially at this time of the year.
Christmas marks a new era of human history, something the secular textbooks acknowledge, even though they’ve changed B.C. and A.D. to other words excluding Christ. They can’t get away from that turning point in history. The centuries and millennia leading up to Christ’s birth were centuries and millennia of distance from God, in a sense. God in His holiness spoke through prophets, and the Holy of Holies in His temple could only be entered by one priest, the High Priest, on one appointed day per year, to offer atonement for his own sins and the sins of the whole nation of Israel. There was a barrier of sacrifices and requirements and holiness and laws, past which there was no hope of approaching God perfectly whole. The Law was meant to bring light to sin, to demonstrate God’s standard and how unreachable it is for fallen mankind. God in His holiness was showing His holiness to a people who, though saved by faith, were bound by an unkeepable Law.
But our celebration of Christmas remembers the dawning of a new era in human history. Christ’s birth marks the era of God’s nearness to humanity. Immanuel. God with us. Christ came, not as a spirit, but as a human person, tangible, visible. He came as the fulfillment of all the prophesies concerning Him, and He came as a prophet, but a prophet the likes of which this world had never seen. He came as the Greater David, a Shepherd-King of the lineage of David, the shepherd-king of Israel, but far surpassing David. He came as the Greater Moses, a Leader who would lead His People out of darkness into the light of God’s eternal kingdom, far surpassing Moses’s temporary deliverance of the Israelites from their Egyptian slavemasters. Jesus came as the Second Adam, the Father of a new family of Heavenly proportions and Heavenly lineage, to restore that fellowship with God that Adam through his sin had lost. Jesus came as the Greater Aaron, a High Priest able to approach God freely, not only once a year, but at all times, to make intersession on our behalf. Jesus came as the Greatest Sacrifice, fulfilling all the centuries of sacrificed lambs and bulls and doves, satisfying with a single act the needed sacrifice to atone for our Cosmic Treason, our innate rebellion against the God and Creator of the Universe.
The Christmas story isn’t just a story of God’s love and redemptive plan to save His people, or a story of His mercy and compassion. The Christmas story – the plan of redemption – is necessary because of mankind’s radical sin, because of our rebellion against our Creator.
The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man,
to see if there are any who understand,
who seek after God.
They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one. (Psalm 14:2-3)
The story of the birth in a stable is one piece of the story of judgement, and how God must act to satisfy justice, because He is righteous and good. But because He is loving, He came as a willing substitution to pay the price for our fallenness, our sin, our Cosmic Treason. The birth in the stable isn’t just the mercy part of the story. This is about a fallenness of humanity so profound that it required a miracle as crazy and appalling as a good, righteous, perfect, glorious God to step into our broken world and save us by His own initiative, His own perfect sacrifice. Because it should be appalling. Our need for God should break us, humble us, cause us to love Him even more for the love and patience He has shown to us. This is God willingly coming to willingly die to satisfy the need for payment for sin, thirty-three years after the miraculous birth in Bethlehem, and to satisfy our greatest need, which is to be reconciled to our Heavenly Father.
Why all of this? Because He loves us. “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16) Demonstrating His love to us so radically is so immensely glorifying to Him, we can’t even come close to comprehending it. So yes, this is a story of love. But this isn’t a heartwarming story of love. This is a soul-shaking, earth-shattering, sin-destroying, history-making, life-giving love. And to limit the story in our hearts and minds to being another quip on a greeting card does a severe injustice to the Story of all stories, and robs us of the joy of awe.
How appropriate that we celebrate Christmas in the darkest, coldest time of the year, right before the New Year. How poignant. Don’t let the New Year come and go without wrestling with the magnitude of the Christmas season. The joy of this season should be ours the entire year, if we are in Christ and a member of His family, forgiven and regenerated. The joy of this season should strike us to the heart. Our sweet manger scenes and cute decorations of little feathered-winged baby angels and heartwarming Christmas flicks don’t even come close to communicating the magnitude of the earthquake that shook the world when God entered into time and space in the form of a tiny, vulnerable, helpless infant, a story that climaxed in a bloody Man hanging on a Cross, an instrument of torture, bearing the sins of the world on His shoulders, God the Son separated from fellowship with God the Father. This isn’t a story meant to make us feel warm and pleasant and comfortable. This is a story meant to shake us to the core by this radical demonstration of God’s mercy in response to required justice. This is a story meant to change us.
One of my favorite passages in the Bible is from Revelation 21. It always brings a lump to my throat.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)
He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20)
The former things. Sin and death and rebellion, sorrow, pain, loss, worry, fear. All of that, conquered and defeated. God Himself wiping our tears from our eyes. What an image. How about that as the Glory we see in the Manger at Christmastime! Let that ring in your hearts as you ring in the New Year!