Entries in Christmas (21)
Christmas has come and gone. I am in debt so deeply I have no hope of paying back what I owe, but this debt brings me hope and joy. I am in debt to God’s great Incarnational act of love.
Hidden in the North American holiday habit of excess and over-spending is a parable. The bank of Heaven extended me a line of credit so vast it cannot be calculated, and I drew on every bit of the amount. Our great debt to God is love. And like all great debt, the only way to pay it back is a little at a time, each payment a reminder of the grand total.
To stretch this simple metaphor to its ultimate degree, the Bank of Heaven has many locations, currently approaching seven billion on the planet: since all humanity is made in his image, everyone becomes a location where I can present an installment on so happy a debt.
If you have been taught that the only meaning of grace is free-forgiveness you will certainly take issue with this line of thinking. “That’s what grace is all about,” you protest, “we cannot pay the debt of sin, nor should we imagine we could ever earn our way to heaven.” In our day this particular truth is too true, yet I am not talking about sin. I am talking about something as different from sin as water is from sand. I am talking about the Father’s love. If Christmas were only about divine rescue from sin, then the sin-debt—paid in full—would be the end of the issue. When we understand that Christmas is not about our sin but rather God’s great love, we will see what we received at Christmas was an advance upon the love of God.
The economics of the Incarnation turn every business model on its head: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” The prudent Apostle Paul warned against the worldly debt but encouraged the debt of love: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other.” The love of God is the currency of Heaven, the coin of our payment to one another.
His genius is not compounding interest, but compounding equity. We repay the love debt with the very substance of the original act of God’s great love. All across the world, the love of God is repaid in acts of kindness done in his name. The effect is ever-increasing love, the source—and the payment—of our joyous debt.
Some things hide in plain sight. Others hide behind fancy names. And still others hide among the over-decorated trappings of tradition dressed up as garish holiday cheer. Sometimes it’s all three.
The truth about Christmas is that God became a man. The transcendent Creator of the Universe, the One who sits outside his creation submerged himself in the work of his hands. The Playwright walked on stage in the middle of the show. The Coach became a player. The King became a commoner.
He wasn’t a Poser, pretending to be something other than what he was: he was born, and he grew; he came of age and took his place among us; he embraced his purpose and fulfilled it completely. He wasn’t slumming among us like some impostor: he laughed, he cried, he sweat. When we struck him, he bled. When we pierced him, he died.
Something as grand and wonderful as Christmas certainly has many sub-themes: peace on earth, goodwill toward men, hope for tomorrow, salvation for all, and the fulfillment of promise. We should listen to each line of the symphony and enjoy the beauty of each one. Put them all together than they point to the grand melody, that God became man.
When God became man, he demonstrated how to be human. His life, in the person of Jesus Christ, is the model of all lives, everywhere and in every time. Men from every age can look to Jesus has example. Women from every culture can discover fullness in him. God did not cheat the game by walking through life untouched by the trouble we face. He faced the same troubles we have faced, and indeed more, because to his trouble was added unique rejection of all mankind toward him. Humanity had never seen his type before, and the one encounter between God and humanity resulted in our utter rejection of him, but he responded with un-rejectable love.
You can have your shepherds, wise men, angels, and mangers. For me, the grandeur of Christmas is captured in the gospel, which places its cards on the table right from the start:
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:9-14)
John tells us plainly, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1: 18)
What does God look like? He looks like Jesus. The Father spoke himself in Jesus. The countless words of every generation, arrayed in questions, arguments, songs and poems have been answered in the single Word, Jesus. The same Word that spoke creation into being speaks life into us today.
When God became man, it looked like Jesus, and he still does. If we aspire to the presence of God in our everyday, we are really aspiring to Jesus. Because he is human we have the hope of his likeness. Because he is God, we have the certainty of his promise. All other messages flow from the Word made flesh. He was announced as Emmanuel, and he continues to reveal himself as such: God is forever with us because he has forever pitched his tent in the person of Jesus, the true lesson of Christmas.
Wednesday night, the evening after Christmas, our little girl laid by the fire and said, “Christmas goes too quickly.” I smiled a grown-up smile--the kind tinged with sadness--because I knew work was already calling. The world continued to turn. The business of life demanded my attention again. Our Christmas pause (happy as it was) was over. Already that night I had checked email twice, looking to get a jump on the work day ahead.
Yet in that moment by the fire the true wisdom came from our daughter’s heart. Christmas was over too soon, and only a fool would not pause to lament its passing.
Here’s an exercise: imagine the happiest ending to any story ever told. Don’t hold back. Dream of something impossibly good. Infuse “happily ever after” with every practical joy you know. Now double it. If it doesn’t feel too foolish, write down the crazy joy and keep it stored in your phone so you can see it every time it comes to mind.
It’s a righteous exercise, the discipline of a mind engaged with the goodness of God. The surprising reality is that the New Testament urges us time and again to indulge ourselves with speculations of delight. The Apostle Paul concludes his prayer for others with, “to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.” Peter comforts a suffering minority with the phrase “Joy unspeakable, full of glory.” Reframing Isaiah, Paul exhorts reminds us neither can our eyes see, nor our ears hear--no, never could it enter into our hearts--all that God has planned for us.
Time and again he invites us to exercise our imagination toward his goodness and our destiny, because he cares for us. His care is complete. His goodness is without end. Love guides his immeasurable power. Our childish view of life with God does not contain too many pictures of delight, but too few--and too small.
Centuries later C.S. Lewis added his take: “You and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been us for nearly a hundred years.” Wordsworth chided us: “We have given our hearts away.” His powerful poem opens with the simple observation, “The world is too much with us, late and soon/ Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”
Better to live in the lament of Christmas gone too soon than to face grimly the “reality” of a workaday world. Better still--what if we discovered the path to unspeakable joy in the everyday business of life. What if Father Christmas has gifts to give us each and every day?
Among the gifts of the Christ Child is the tension of his birth. God becomes man--not only a man, but a child. Centuries-old promises are fulfilled before our eyes, but we do not see them. Joseph adopts a son, who will later adopt him. Perfection comes wrapped in scandal. The Lord of glory came with very little glory at all.
Two weeks ago I sat with earnest young disciples who eagerly embraced the tension of God’s Kingdom: ever close, ever appearing, yet awaiting the full light of day. Together we explored that tension in scripture, and together we reflected on that same tension in our own lives.
“In what way has God’s Kingdom appeared in your life?” asked our young leader. “And in what ways do you wait for his appearing?” I didn’t get a chance to share my answers that evening, but this Christmas Eve I share them with you now.
God’s Kingdom has come! He has broken into my life: I'm grateful for his daily appearing in my family: where I am loved and forgiven, where I am known yet still embraced. This family is large and growing, beyond my wildest expectation. I'm grateful for the miracles I’ve seen: he has partnered with me in prayer for the sick, who are healed. I've witnessed the deaf receiving again their hearing; the barren conceiving children, and degenerative diseases rolled away. Eternal life, the with-God kind of life, does not begin some future day. I live in that eternal life here and now.
God’s Kingdom is yet to come! Together, with all who long for his appearing, I confess: I long to see his coming in me--when I will no longer be driven by the lash of fear or suspicion or the desire to put myself above others. I long to see his coming in the lives of my neighbors, so many of whom are captive to Xanax, OxyContin, alcohol, or weed, self-medicating their disillusioned lives. I long to see his coming when injustice is exposed for what it is, and the both the oppressed and the oppressors are set free from their bondage. I long to see the earth unfold in its glory, the glory reflected in God’s deep words over creation, “Behold it was all very good.”
God came to earth and lived incognito among us for 30 years. When at last he revealed himself we could not bear the glory: “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:10-12)
My Christmas wish is the same for you and me. It lives in the tension as well: that we would all receive our birthright, and discover more of his Kingdom, and of its increase there would be no end.
When really important people come to town, everyone one knows it. NBA stadiums sell out months before LeBron or Kobe show up for game time. When Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson do a personal appearance, hundreds of screaming fans will show up hours ahead of time. When the President visits your city, you can be sure the mayor will meet him at the airport and school children will be there to give the first lady flowers.
But the Christmas story shows us God does things differently. You might even call his way sneaky. The most important person in the history of the world snuck into town late one night and definitely did not stay in a five-star hotel. Jesus was smuggled into Bethlehem through the womb of a teenage girl, who gave birth in a barn. That’s different.
We all know the story of Christmas: the baby, the barn, the shepherds and magi. Hidden inside that familiar story is the surprising revelation that God’s way is to ignore the bigshots and use nobodies instead. Just count the nobodies:
Mary was a teenage girl from a small town. In Bible times women were not important people, and teenagers were even lower on the scale. Mix in her pre-martial pregnancy, and you’ve got a real nobody on your hands. But Mary was God’s choice. She conceived the baby Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. God considered her somebody important and gave her a pretty tough assignment!
Joseph was a nobody, too. He was just a working man across town from Mary’s family. He was faced with a choice between trusting God or protecting his small-town reputation. But reputations belong to important people, and most of the important people were in Jerusalem. Joseph said “yes” to shame, yes to love, and yes to God, so God chose Joseph to act as a foster-father to the Savior of the world.
Shepherds are not important people. Just the opposite: second-shift schmucks who work outdoors. Back in that day watching sheep was not exactly a rock-star kind of gig. Yet they were the first guests invited to the celebration.
The Magi? Nothing more than rich pagan astrologers. It didn’t matter if they had money, they were foreigners. Foreigners have the wrong religion, the wrong clothes, and the wrong sacred books. Elizabeth &
Zechariah & Elizabeth: a kindly old couple engaged in harmless religious activity. They are the kind of people society ignores—unless they are driving too slow on a the highway. Anna & Simeon: Alone and elderly, they were two people almost completely invisible to everyone. Everyone except the Holy Spirit.
One and all, God used people on the outside of society.
The secret message inside the Christmas story? God invites the nobodies. And when God invites you to the table, he provides everything you need. The powerful people, the beautiful people, and the cool kids might not make it to the celebration. They’re welcome, but they might be too busy building their own kingdoms. Meanwhile God’s kingdom is filling up with the people no one notices.
This season, if you are a nobody—rejoice! You are not far from the Kingdom of God.
This is the introduction from my Christmas devotional, 25 Days of Christmas. It's probably a little late for this year, but mark it down for next: 25 one-minute devotions to prepare you for Christmas.