What is the Meaning of Christmas?

MangerCaveEvery year, millions of people around the world celebrate Christmas. But what does it all mean? What difference does it really make in our lives? Why should we care? Why do we need Christmas? What is the meaning of it all? 

Over the years, I’ve heard countless explanations for the meaning of Christmas and the reason for the season. “Christmas is about spending time with family and friends,” some say, and others “Christmas is about giving back to others.”  It’s been said that Christmas is about, “love for others” and “peace on earth.” It’s been sung that Christmas is about “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” The meaning of Christmas has been explained many times and many ways. While these are certainly some good things about Christmas, they fall well short of the true meaning of Christmas.

Our world has incredibly complex problems: wars, terrorism, famines, racism, loss, and catastrophes. People have complex problems: physical, emotional, and family problems. Sometimes we despair as we try to help others or to deal with our own problems. We fill our hearts with all kinds of choices, behaviors, stuff, or people only to find our lives empty of meaning.

Where do we go to find the meaning of Christmas? We go to the source of truth – God’s Word, the Bible. Listen to the angels as they announced Jesus’ birth:

“The angel said to the shepherds, “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today a Savior, who is Christ the Lord, was born for you in the city of David.” Luke 2:10–11

StoneMangerChristmas is about a Savior who was born for you! The meaning of Christmas begins and ends with a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. In Jesus Christ, God provided the simplest solution for all of the complex problems we make and face in this world. In Jesus Christ, God sent a Savior whose birth we celebrate at Christmas.

Some might scoff about the salvation of Jesus as a simplistic solution – one that really doesn’t work. Others might say that His incarnate birth a nice story, an interesting legend, harmless enough; but they would never consider it as a serious solution to any significant problems. But, God knows that the basic problem with the world is the sin of the human race. Sin, missing God’s standard for holiness and goodness in character and action, is what separates mankind from God and from each other. Any solutions that leave out dealing with our sin problem are the simplistic solutions. The only solution that offers true hope and real help to humanity’s complex problems is that which takes into account the sinful hearts of people and offers a practical solution to that universal, and yet, personal problem of sin.

The angels from heaven announced God’s provision of this Savior. The birth of Jesus is a fact of history: “Today…was born.” The birth of Jesus is a foundation for eternity: “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” And, His birth is a fulfillment of prophecy: “in the city of David.”

The angels from heaven announced God’s purpose of a Savior (Luke 2:11)  The name, Savior, defines both His life and His death. If you’re simply looking for moral reformation or behavior modification, you might need a life coach, a cheerleading section, or a really good friend, but not a Savior. But if your life requires mortal resurrection (and it does because we are all sinners who sin), you’re going to need something beyond yourself. If your life of captivity to sin has resulted in spiritual death (which it has), you need someone who will raise dead people to life. If your sin has separated you from a Holy, Perfect God, then you need a Savior who died in your place to reconcile you to Him.

In Jesus, God provided what we needed the most, when we deserved it least, at the greatest personal cost to Him (see Isaiah 53). Jesus came to live as the perfect God-man who could die in our place for the forgiveness of our sin.

Jesus_candlesThe angels from heaven also introduced God’s promise of this Savior. The birth of Jesus was “good news of great joy for all the people.” Later, Jesus Himself clearly communicated the promise of His advent: “The Son of Man has come to seek and save the lost.” (Luke 19:10) He had come to seek us out. Jesus came to earth as a rescue mission. When we think of someone being lost we think of helicopters hovering in the night sky, overboard sailors clinging to the wreckage of a ship, coal miners trapped beneath the earth, or children who cannot be found. But these temporal situations are transcended by the eternal tragedy of people who are lost in the rubble of their own sin, buried in the darkness of self-sufficiency, suffocating by loneliness, and crushed by personal pain.

Sometimes the solutions to life’s problems are simpler than we think. With the birth of Jesus which we celebrate at Christmas, God sought us out, rescued us, and saved us by His grace, mercy, and love (Titus 3:4-7).

There was a man who traveled a great distance for an interview with a distinguished scholar. He was ushered into the man’s study, where he said, “Doctor, I notice that the walls of your study are lined with books from the ceiling to the floor. No doubt you have read them all. I know you have written many yourself. You have traveled extensively, and doubtless you’ve had the privilege of conversing with some of the world’s most intelligent and wisest men. I’ve come a long way to ask you just one question. Tell, me, of all you’ve learned, what is the one thing most worth knowing?” Putting his hand on his guest’s shoulder, the scholar replied with emotion in his voice, “My dear sir, of all the things I have learned, only two are really worth knowing. The first is, I am a great sinner, and the second, Jesus Christ is a great Savior!” If you know those two things personally, you know the meaning of Christmas – that a Savior has been born for you who is Christ the Lord!

That’s what Christmas is all about. A Savior, Christ the Lord, who was born for you. It really is that simple.

Follow me…as I follow Jesus Christ. Merry Christmas!

The Nativity

The Nativity

“The Nativity” by Gari Melchers is one of my favorite artistic portrayals of the birth of Jesus because it seems to capture the harsh realities of the night that changed the world.

Before the shepherds appear to tell about the angelic announcement, before the wise men arrive to worship Him and present their gifts, there’s just Mary, exhausted from child birth, and Joseph, overwhelmed by the task in front of him, and the baby in a feeding trough, an unplanned pregnancy and inconvenient birth that saved us all.

“I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David.  This will be the sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in cloth and lying in a feeding trough.” Luke 2:10-12

MERRY CHRISTMAS!
Follow me…as I follow Jesus Christ.

Unplanned Pregnancy

Unplanned birth“The birth of Jesus Christ came about this way: After His mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, it was discovered before they came together that she was pregnant…” (Matthew 1:18).

There it is in the Bible: the birth of Jesus was an unplanned pregnancy. Certainly it wasn’t the first in the history of the world nor would it be the last.

Joseph, being a godly, righteous man, had options. He could hardly let his fiancé’s pregnancy pass without action since it implied that she had been unfaithful and had violated the Mosaic Law. So, he had three options concerning how to proceed. First, he could expose Mary publicly as unfaithful whereby she would have suffered the shame of a public divorce (Deut. 22:23–24). A second option was to grant her a private divorce in which case Joseph needed only to hand her a written certificate in the presence of two witnesses (cf. Num. 5:11–31). His third option was to remain engaged and not divorce Mary, but this alternative appeared to Joseph to require him to break the Mosaic Law (Lev. 20:10). So, he decided to divorce her privately (Matthew 1:19). This preserved his righteousness, that is, his conformity to the Law, and allowed him to demonstrate compassion for his young fiancé, Mary.

But there was another option that Joseph had not considered, let alone imagined: Mary was indeed pregnant, but it was not a pregnancy born of promiscuity. Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. It was a miracle by the power of God’s Holy Spirit to fulfill His long-awaited promise of a Savior (Isaiah 7:14).

“An angel of the Lord suddenly appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what has been conceived in her is by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to name Him Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)

unplanned pregnancyThe virgin birth of Jesus is technically the virgin conception. Mary was not just a virgin when she bore Jesus in Bethlehem, but she was one when she conceived Him in Nazareth. Who was prepared among their peers to understand such a biological anomaly? And yet, this real option of Jesus’ miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit was crucial if Jesus was to be our sinless sacrifice.

The virgin conception was necessary to preserve the baby from the stain of sin. The angel explained the appropriateness of this name (cf. Ps. 130:8). The name “Jesus” means “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is salvation.” Jesus, the sinless Savior, is God’s gift to us to accomplish what no other child could ever do.

“Joseph did as the Lord’s angel had commanded him. He married her but did not know her intimately until she gave birth to a son. And he named Him, Jesus” (Matthew 1:24-25)

My earthly life and eternal future were changed forever by one unplanned pregnancy that saved us all. “O come, let us adore Him.”

Follow me… as I follow Jesus Christ.

In Those Days

TheophilusFaith in Jesus’ incarnation certainly requires belief in the supernatural work of God, but it’s not a leap beyond reason.

In the Gospel of Luke, the author carefully investigated and provided specific details about the political rulers and setting surrounding Jesus’ birth that were important to Theophilus (Luke 1:3-4), perhaps a political leader himself, whose faith needed historical validity and intellectual credibility.

The coming of Jesus, the Christ, is not a fairy tale that begins with, “Once upon a time…” Instead, it’s a promise fulfilled, “In those days…” The human birth of God’s Eternal Son was a real event in real time among real people so that we might have real hope and not just wishful thinking.

Follow me… as I follow Jesus Christ.

Prince of Peace

Our world today is anything but peaceful. Many people are driven by fear, angry about the events of our world, protesting the injustices of racism or refugees, preparing for war, and even fighting a war of words within our country. As we prepare to celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), we are anything but peaceful.

Jesus said to His followers on the night He was betrayed and eventually crucified, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Your heart must not be troubled or fearful” (John 14:27).

Jesus gives His peace to us today as an inheritance that will secure our composure and dissolve our fears (Philippians 4:7). It’s His peace that controls our hearts (Colossians 3:12-15). For “God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgement” (2 Timothy 1:7). Jesus gives us His peace as we walk with Him by faith (2 Corinthians 5:7) rather than be stirred up by earthly fears.

Paris attacksJesus, Himself, felt troubled by His impending crucifixion (John 12:27), yet still trusted His Heavenly Father’s will to be done (Matthew 26:39,42). So, the peace that Jesus gives is not an exemption from conflicts and difficulties; it’s a part of taking up our cross to follow Him (Luke 9:23-24). Resting in His peace is not an escape from reality nor is it an excuse for passivity. In fact, His peace is anything but passive — it must be actively pursued because it doesn’t come naturally (Psalm 34:14Romans 14:19; Hebrews 12:14).

Peace will not come if we speak in words that inflame arguments or in ways that antagonize other people (1 Timothy 5:1–22 Timothy 2:1424–26). We should be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry (James 1:19) and even slower to post or comment on social media. The things that make for peace are refraining from verbal criticism and resisting cynical thinking by leaning on Jesus through dependent prayer (John 15:4, Galatians 5:22-23). We need to live peaceably with all people as much as we can (Matthew 5:9Mark 9:50Romans 12:18) because peaceful interpersonal relationships (including those on social media) produce godliness (James 3:18). When Peter rashly took matters into his own hands, Jesus admonished him to submit to the sovereignty of God (Matthew 26:52-54) because man’s anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness (James 1:20).

Protestors in ChicagoThe peace that Jesus gives us is not an absence of conflict, rather, it’s a settled confidence that comes from knowing that we are right with God and that one day Jesus will come for those of us who are waiting for His return (Isaiah 53:5Romans 5:11 Pe 2:24–25Titus 2:11-14). Not only is Jesus the God of peace, but we can experience the peace of God (Philippians 4:7). As fully devoted followers of Jesus who focus on this truth, we can experience supernatural peace in the midst of trouble and fear, just as Jesus did.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace today as you believe in Him so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13). May the God of peace Himself set you apart for His purposes completely. And may your spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, who also will do these things (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).  He is, after all, the Prince of Peace.
Follow me… as I follow Jesus Christ.

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Have you ever looked under the Christmas tree to inspect still-wrapped gifts for size and shape and mass and volume? As a child, I used to think, “the bigger — the better.” But over the years, I’ve discovered the reality that “big things come in small packages.” In fact, great things come in small packages. This couldn’t be more true as we think about the birthplace of our great King, Jesus, born as a tiny baby.

With God’s Spirit guiding him, the prophet Micah foretold,

“Bethlehem Ephrathah, you are small among the clans of Judah; One will come from you to be ruler over Israel for Me. His origin is from antiquity, from eternity.” Micah 5:2

Bethlehem Hills - BWGod’s majesty and reputation are not diminished or compromised by introducing Jesus into the world through such seemingly small and insignificant circumstances. In fact, it is in this tiny, forgotten village that we see more clearly God’s beautiful character of love and peace for us. Unlike humanity, God is never tempted to be a showy braggart. Even in the simple birthplace of the eternal King Jesus, God allowed Himself to be approachable by all, especially the lowly and small.

The shepherds, the epitome of ordinary and insignificant, were tending their sheep in the Judean hill country when they were invited to Bethlehem to find the baby Jesus in the simple feeding trough. These simple shepherds, who were simply doing their work, were the first to hear the good news. Immediately, they worshiped God for all they had seen and heard. In the 2nd Century ad, Origen frequently resided in Palestine and wrote from his personal experience, “In Bethlehem you are shown the cave where he was born, and within the cave the manger where he was wrapped in swaddling clothes.” Before the birthplace of Jesus became a shrine for the masses, it was just a simple place.

Bethlehem HillsWhy did Jesus come to Bethlehem? What’s the significance? Why there of all places? Do you think Joseph and Mary ever asked, “Why there? Why now?” Yet, in their simple obedience to go to Bethlehem for the census when it was most inconvenient, they were crucial to fulfilling God’s plan for His incarnation. Why Bethlehem?

Remember that Bethlehem was a place of sorrow. Historically, it’s where the Jewish Patriarch, Jacob, buried his wife, Rachel. As Rachel died, the Bible says, she called her son’s name, Ben-oni: “Son of my Sorrow.” (Genesis 35:18-19) Centuries later, Bethlehem was also a place of sorrow because King Herod, jealous of the one born “King of the Jews,” gave orders to massacre all the male children who were two years old and under (Matthew 2:16-18). In this very same place, Jesus, called the Man of Sorrows (Isaiah 53:3), was born. He would carry our sorrows, our suffering in His body to be pierced because of our sin. But one day, because of Him, we will go to another place where sorrow will be no more (Revelation 21:3-4).

Bethlehem MangerRecall, also, that Bethlehem was also a place of selection – it was the birthplace and hometown of David, the shepherd whom God chose became king of Israel. God made covenant promises to David assuring him that He would establish his royal line and kingdom forever (2 Samuel 7:11-16, 28-29). Micah foretold of Bethlehem, “One will come from you to be ruler over Israel for Me.”

Bethlehem is most significant because it is the birthplace of our salvation. According to God’s plan (Micah 5:2), Israel’s future ruler would not come from majestic Jerusalem but from insignificant Bethlehem. He would be the Shepherd King who will bring peace and blessing to all peoples (Isaiah 2:2-4; 60:1-5). This “ruler over Israel” is also divine since He had come “from antiquity” (literally days of immeasurable time). The New Testament identifies this shepherd leader as the Messiah, Jesus Christ (Matthew 2:1,3-6), who would be the Savior of the world.

Bethlehem reminds us that God often chooses to bring something great and extra-ordinary out of something so small and ordinary. For the many times when I feel so small, so lonely, so insignificant, and so ordinary, Bethlehem reminds me that God uses the simple and the commonplace to reveal His breathtaking glory. Size never threatens or limits God’s true greatness. The insignificance of Bethlehem is God’s birthplace for our significance in Christ.

Bethlehem motherThis Christmas, I encourage you to enjoy all the small things the season brings: cookies in the oven, moments of quietness, selflessly serving, time spent in prayer, a reading of the Christmas story, exchanging presents, and so much more.

Through simple acts of seemingly insignificant obedience, like Joseph and Mary, you and I can bring Christ into the world. And we encounter many unsuspecting small things and small moments, I pray you will embrace them as wonderful opportunities to worship the eternal King, Jesus Christ – the One born in the little town of Bethlehem.

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel

Follow me… as I follow Jesus Christ

 

 

 

What is Advent?

Advent_WreathWhat is this thing called Advent?

In 4th and 5th century Gaul and Spain, Advent was a preparation not for Christmas but for Epiphany. That’s the early-January celebration of such diverse events in Jesus’ life as his Baptism, the miracle at Cana, and the visit of the Magi. In those days,  believers spent Advent’s 40 days examining their hearts in worship.

It was not until the 6th century that Christians in Rome began linking this season explicitly to the coming of Christ. But at that time, and for centuries after, the “coming” that was celebrated was not the birth of Jesus, but anticipation of His Second Coming. It was not until the Middle Ages that the church began using the Advent season to prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth. And even then, this newer sense of the Lord’s advent or coming did not replace the older sense—the Second Coming.  The muted, somber anticipation of waiting remained alongside the joyous celebration of Jesus’ birthday.

So, modern liturgy divides Advent into a period, through December 16th, during which the focus is Christ’s Second Coming, and a period, from December 17th to the 24th, focusing on His birth. We light candles in anticipation of His Second Coming and in celebration of His incarnation. It starts with the Old Testament passages foretelling the birth of a Messiah and New Testament passages trumpeting John the Baptist’s exhortations and the angels’ announcements.

Christ came with great anticipation and with plenty of prior notice! See Simeon in Luke 2:25-35. Prophets and angels joined to proclaim his coming! And now we can join too, with the cloud of witnesses in the same proclamation!

Waiting in the LordAnd in the protected, quiet times of meditation, I can respond as I imagine believers have done on every Advent since the tradition began: I can bow my head and prepare for the return of the One who is always present, but who seems distant in my mind during the busyness of the season. I can mourn for my hardness of my heart. I can hope in His grace. And I can rejoice that in answer to the cry, “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” He came.

During Christmas, we’re rushing around, busy with parties and programs and presents and plans. It seems like there’s hardly time to wait. But celebrating the waiting and longing for “the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ? (Titus 2:11-14) is precisely what Advent is all about.