It always takes me time to get into Christmas. I don’t know what it is. Perhaps the celebratory hangover from Thanksgiving or the usual cynical complaints about crass commercialism. Usually I don’t really start to realize it’s Christmas until the late teens of December. But like a reluctant convert, once I can acclimate myself to the Christmas season, I take to it with gusto.
But even I think that sometimes our celebrations of events can blur the very reason for celebrating to begin with. Does anyone really think that fireworks, burgers and country music have anything to do with the American Revolution?
And I think that this happens to Christmas. It takes on a life of it’s own and sometimes ignores the very reason for celebration. This reason being two things (at least to me), salvation coming to mankind and God identifying the weakest and poorest among us.
Salvation Is Here
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
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, good will toward men.”
Now the first thing you notice if you read the Old Testament, you’ll notice that the angel nearly always say, “Fear not,” before their message. Why? Because in the Old Testament the coming of the angel of the Lord, along with His glory is usually a sign of judgement coming. The reason for this is because in the Old Testament God is typified by His judgement. In Genesis God makes it very clear that there was once a friend to friend relationship between God and man and mankind ruined it. Man now is sinful and God, in His righteousness, cannot coexist with sin. Thus the Law was necessary to cleanse man and also to show them their innate sinfulness. God was typically seen as a harsh, but righteous, Judge, ever ready to bring justice to His errant people (though it is important to understand that the words “compassion” and “mercy” are actually found more in the OT than anywhere else in the Bible). Now as people whose image of God is usually seen through a Christian lens, it is hard to imagine this kind of fear that people had of God. The best image can be seen through Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
Just like one holding a dirty spider by the web over a fire, God holds you over the pit of hell. His anger is provoked; and His wrath burns against you like fire. You are ten thousand times more detestable to Him than the most hated snake is to us. You have offended Him infinitely more than any criminal has offended a judge…There is no reason that you did not drop into Hell today. Yes, there is no reason why you do not drop into hell this very minute. O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in. His anger is provoked and incensed…You are a sinner in the hands of an angry God.
It is this kind of mentality that many (rightfully) had of God. This explains their frightened conduct before the angel of the Lord. But notice how the words of the angel would have been the greatest relief to them, indeed to everyone.
The first words that come out of his mouth are, “Fear not.” Fear not, your fears of God, your image of God is not true. Behold – stand back- and understand that I bring you good tidings of great joy, the literal Greek referring to the Hebrew term for news about the Messiah. In essence; Don’t be afraid for I am bringing you news about your Messiah that will be the best news you have ever heard. Once the angel launched into the Savior born in the city of David part, they knew what it was about. They had grown up on the prophecies of a Messiah from the tribe of Judah, from the branch of David, being born to save His people. Almost certainly the older of them were saying, “I never thought I’d live to see the day…” The news is concluded with a multitude of angels saying, “Glory to God in the Highest and on earth, peace…” That is crucial. The Hebrew word for peace is shalom. It literally means well-being, harmony and completeness. And on earth, completeness and harmony. The relationship between man and God is now complete. It is made right again because unto us a Son is born. To really understand how dramatic a shift this is compare the mentality of Edwards statement and Martin Luther’s sermon in the early 1500s.
I used to think God was angry. Punishing us in this life, sending us to Purgatory, condemning us sinners to burn in Hell. But I was wrong. Those who see God as angry, do not see him rightly, but rather as a dark curtain covered His face… to behold God in faith that you should look upon his fatherly, friendly heart, in which there is no anger nor ungraciousness. So the next time the Devil throws your sins in your face and says to you that you deserve death and hell, say this to him; ‘I admit I deserve death and hell but what of it? For I know One Who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf, His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God and where He is, there I shall be also!’
The disparity between the two views of God is absolutely mind-boggling. The veil between man and God is removed. No longer are we under the harsh law, but rather the opportunity for mercy is at hand. As Jonathan Edwards wrote (in the same sermon),
God is standing right now, ready to pity you. Today is a day of mercy.
The angel was basically saying, “Fear not. Your salvation is here. Fear not.”
The Weak to Shame the Strong.
Another great message of Christmas and of Christianity as a whole is God sympathizing, indeed empathizing with the weak, the oppressed, the base, the unworthy as opposed to the strong, the free, the clean and the worthy.
In the beginning of Luke 2, Luke notes that Jesus’ father, Joseph had to go from one podunk, nowheresville part of Israel to another. Nazareth was hardly a town to be proud of. In fact when Nathaneal’s brother tells him of the Messiah later in the Gospels, he mocks him. “Nazareth? Can any good come of it?” Bethlehem was hardly Beverly Hills either. Micah talks of Bethlehem as,”…small among the clans of Judah…” It was like moving from Bakersfield to Mojave. From South Central LA to South Chicago. One ghetto to another.
Furthermore Luke passes over the scandal that earlier surrounded Jesus’ birth. It says that Mary is his espoused wife, not his full wife. A man and woman, once espoused in Jewish culture, were considered married, but in everything besides, “…that which leads to children.”But it notes that Mary was great with child. Terrific, Joseph probably thought. Poor and very pregnant.
Jesus was then born in a stable, which was most likely a cave, in the manger, which is where animals put their mouths in. Where they ate out of. To get a real picture, think of the public bathrooms near the beach and then imagine your child’s first crib being the sink in there. On top of that, you are there because there is no room in the flea bag Motel 6 around the corner. Poor, osctracized, from the poor part of the country, being born under the humblest, nastiest conditions.
On top of that the first people that knew of His birth were shepherds. These are not exactly the elite of Jewish society. A king’s birth is usually announced to the inner circle of the monarchy, the elite of the kingdom. Priests, advisers, lords, nobles, and the rich. Instead the first to hear of it are shepherds, poor, rough men who live outdoors and take care of animals. Christ wasn’t from the best of families, wasn’t born in the best of times, wasn’t from the good neighborhood, wasn’t born in the great conditions that kings were born in and wasn’t surrounded with the high class elite that kings are supposed to associate with. He was poor, He was humble, He was low class.
Not only was He among the poorest and the lowliest of Israel, but Israel itself was a nation that was oppressed, was brutalized and crying out for freedom. She was under the Roman Empire after experiencing freedom for the first time in a long time. Her high class elites sold them out to the Romans and they lived in luxury while their people were crushed under their taxation. To paraphrase Hamlet, “There is something rotten in the state of Judea.”
The King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, became a human being. Not just a human being, but a working class, poor, lowly man, born out of wedlock, in humble conditions, among a people who were crushed under the feet of conquerors. Is it any wonder that James calls the defense of widows and orphans, “true religion”? God chooses to associate Himself with the poor, the weak, the undeserving, the oppressed. Because He was poor, weak and oppressed. We have a God Who empathizes with us, the weak.
It is not unlike the poem, “The Rebel”, by Patrick Pearse.
I am come of the seed of the people, the people that sorrow.
I am of the blood of serfs.
The hands that have touched mine,
the dear hands whose touch is familiar to me
Have worn shameful manacles, have been bitten at the wrist by manacles.
I am flesh of the flesh of these lowly.
I am sorrowful with their sorrow, I am hungry with their desire;
My heart is heavy with the grief of mothers,
My eyes have been wet with the tears of children.
This goes against nearly every other religion and way of thinking. In Islam one must walk the sword of judgement and hope for salvation. It is a slave-Master relationship between you and God. In Judaism one is still under the Law, one must still try to accomplish impossible moral feats to be viewed in favor with God. Many Jewish theologians believe that man is in exile from God. In Hinduism there are entire groups of people who are shunned and oppressed merely because they believe that gods destine it so. In Buddhism one must be strong and ethical either one must live a worse life, over and over again. We want to be strong, we love winners, and we hate the weak and the losers in life. Consider these lyrics from a 50 Cent song (admittedly his best work with Eminem),
“I’m gangsta to the core…I never heard of you, you’ve heard of me…. You’re scared of me, you’re not prepared for me.”
This in essence, sums up our philosophy. We want respect, we want to be strong. We want to do it ourselves. We idolize the strong, and we shun the weak. But we have a God Who says, “That’s not the way I want it. Defend the weak, care for the oppressed, pray for the unworthy, save the sinner. You can’t be strong. Let Me cover your weakness. Let Me be your Strength. Let Me do it.”
It is truly an amazing thing to understand that we have a God…Who cares. Who gets angry at the wrong in our life, Who grieves over our hardships and Who wants to take our sorrows in His Hands. As Patrick Pearse put it, God truly is, “…the unforgetting, the dear God Who loves the people. For whom He died naked, suffering shame.”
Why We Give Gifts
These two lessons are the essence of Christmas. We have a God Who wants to save us and we have a God Who goes against our way of thinking and cares for the weak of this world, indeed us. And this is why we give gifts. People who learn these two crucial truths usually ask the question of the Phillipian jailer, “Sir what must I do to be saved?” It is a beautiful question, largely because it is the wrong one. The answer is nothing. You can do nothing to earn it. It is a gift. You can only accept it and wonder at the Giftgiver.
And so while we have fun listening to Ol’ Blue Eyes sing a Christmas carol, decorating our houses, looking at lights on F Street or drinking Egg Nog, take some time to ponder the truly revolutionary words of the Book of Luke, Chapter 2.
I think I’ll just let my man Linus take it away.