THE THEOLOGY OF CHRISTMAS

To alter and borrow from a song many of us sang as children, Christmas means different things to different people. For some it is a winter holiday representing time off from work or school; for others it is a time of special parties, decorations, music, and food; and for many it is an occasion of giving and receiving gifts.

I am not a distant relative of the Grinch as I do not oppose time off, parties, decorations, music, food, or giving and receiving gifts. But as enjoyable and fun as all of these are, none are at what I would call the heart of Christmas. The heart of Christmas is the annual commemoration and celebration of the birth of Jesus. In this post I want to give an overview of what I call “The Theology of Christmas.”

I hope no one is put off by the word theology. If it suggests to you that we will be challenged to think more deeply than we often do, that is exactly what I have in mind. And why shouldn’t we from time to time wrestle with the more profound aspects of our faith? Not everything about Christianity is simple or easily understood.

 In the New Testament we have four accounts of the life of Jesus called Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Mark doesn’t tell us anything about the birth of Jesus. Matthew and Luke both begin with the birth of Jesus. John doesn’t have a birth account, but John 1:1-18 lays out the theology of Christmas with verse 14 being the cornerstone.

In verse one John writes about the Word pointing out that “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Word is John’s designation for the second person of the Trinity, the one we know as Jesus. Verse 14 is John’s Christmas verse: “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.”

The theology of Christmas is that Jesus was and is God. These verses teach what is called the pre-existence of Jesus. Jesus did not come into existence when he was conceived in Mary’s womb. God has always been—he is eternal. And so is Jesus, because he is God.

The theology of Christmas also is that in Jesus, God became human. That’s the point of John’s Christmas verse declaration in verse 14, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” The theological term for this, for God becoming a man, is incarnation. And that is not easy for us to comprehend. But just because it is difficult to comprehend does not mean we don’t believe it.

In the words of Bible commentator Leon Morris, “John is writing about a genuine incarnation.  The Word took upon himself our flesh, with all that that means.  He accepted the limitations that are a part and parcel of human existence.” Jesus became weary and he needed sleep; he became hungry and he became thirsty, he felt both anger, joy, and sorrow; and in the Garden of Gethsemane he was troubled and desired companionship.

Here’s the bottom line of the theology of Christmas: in Jesus, God became a man; yet when he became a man he did not cease being God. He was both God and man.

The theology of Christmas means we have a Savior. That was the message of the angel to Joseph in Matthew 1:21 and the message of the angel to the shepherds in Luke 2:10 and 11. You and I need a Savior.

The theology of Christmas also means we have a Savior who understands us. Because God became man in Jesus we have a Savior who identifies with us in our needs. The writer of Hebrews makes that clear in Hebrews 2:17 and 18 and again in 4:14-16. Because Jesus understands He wants to and can help us when we are tempted. (I encourage you, if possible, to grab your Bible and read those two passages right now.)

The theology of Christmas is not simple and easily understood; but challenging, deeply profound, and immensely meaningful.

This year enjoy your time off, parties, decorations, music, food, and giving and receiving gifts; but make sure you don’t overlook the heart of Christmas.

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SOME THANKSGIVING QUESTIONS

As we come to Thanksgiving this week most of us will be focusing on what we are thankful for. The past week or so I’ve been asking myself some questions related to the emphasis of the holiday.

One of the things I’ve been asking myself is what is the opposite of being thankful? If your first thought is ingratitude, that’s what I thought as well. But now I’m not so sure. Ingratitude is the absence of gratitude, but is it the opposite of gratitude? I’m ready to nominate complaining and/or grumbling as the opposite of being thankful. In I Corinthians 10 the Apostle Paul warns us to not repeat the mistakes of the children of Israel when they left Egypt for the Promised Land. In verse 10 he concludes his list of things to avoid with “do not grumble as some of them did.” Throughout the record of their traveling in both Exodus and Numbers we read about their grumbling and complaining. It’s hard to be thankful when we are grumbling.

Another question I have been asking myself is what gets in the way of our being grateful? I reread the account in Luke 17:11-19 of Jesus healing 10 lepers and wondered  why the one returned to give thanks, but the other nine did not? I cannot speak for the nine, but I think for some of us we are not as grateful as we might be because of a sense of entitlement. For some reason we think we deserve the good things and blessings in our lives. And if we deserve them, we don’t really need to be thankful for them.

I don’t have a Bible verse for it, but a third question I’ve been asking is shouldn’t we not only be thankful to God, but also to the people He has brought into our lives who are blessings to us? My answer is yes, but why aren’t we more grateful to them? I think the answer for many of us is that we take these people for granted. I’m determined to be intentional about not taking them for granted — not just for this week’s holiday, but all the time.

A final question we might ask is are we really thankful if we don’t express our gratitude? We certainly could be, but wouldn’t it be much better if we stated it? After all, the holiday is called Thanksgiving.

Here’s an illustration from a sermon entitled A Thankful Life by Kevin Harney. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

This is a story I have never shared. It’s a story that goes back to my childhood when we would go for Christmas to my grandmother’s house. My grandmother would give us a gift and then we would always get a gift from Aunt Elaine and Uncle Vernon. I’d never met them. They lived in Flint, Michigan, and we were in Orange County. But we would get a little gift and then a check for fifteen dollars. Back then fifteen dollars was like a million dollars. Every year I would get this check and this little gift from Aunt Elaine and Uncle Vernon, and my mom would say this, “You kids should write Aunt Elaine and Uncle Vernon a thank you note.” And every year my sisters Gretchen and Alison wrote a note, and I didn’t write a note. So one year we got to Grandma’s house, she gave us our little gift, we opened it, and she gave gifts to Alison and Gretchen from Aunt Elaine and Uncle Vernon, but there was no gift for little Kevin. And I looked and I said, “Don’t I get a gift?” And my mom said, “Aunt Elaine and Uncle Vernon let us know that you’ve never written them a thank you note, they will not be sending you Christmas gifts anymore.” I’ll never forget that and I thank God for it. I’m really good at writing notes now. And it’s not just so I get another gift. They probably thought, “He just doesn’t appreciate it, he just doesn’t care,” and they stopped giving the gift.

If we do not express our gratitude do you think God or others may think we don’t appreciate or care what they do to enrich our lives?

Happy Thanksgiving.

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HEROES IN PERSPECTIVE

We all don’t have the same heroes, but most of us do have at least a few. As we marked Veteran’s Day this past Saturday I was impressed with the many pictures on Facebook of people’s loved ones who had served in our nation’s military. Without using the word, I’m confident those who posted pictures consider their veteran family members and friends heroes.

The dictionary defines a hero as “a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” I’m good with that definition, and with that understanding I think we have quite a few heroes in a variety of roles in life.

What sparked my thinking about the subject of heroes was a brief article I read back in October. Mark Galli, editor in chief of Christianity Today, commented on a biography of the well-known theologian Karl Barth that gave a lot of detail about Barth’s long term affair. Like Galli, I too was saddened by it.

Last week I read about a biography of C. S. Lewis in which the author presented him “warts and all.” John G. Stackhouse Jr. notes in this account Lewis “emerges as a real man” and that “he’s right down here among us.” Stackhouse also comments on a biography about the German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was “another undoubted genius who has been placed on his own pedestal.” In this book, like the books about Barth and Lewis, Bonhoeffer too is presented “as a real person with real faults.”

It shouldn’t surprise us that those we admire for their courage, achievements, or noble qualities are not perfect. They are real people with warts and real faults; but that doesn’t mean they cannot still be heroes. It reminds me of what the Apostle Paul said about Christians and the Gospel, “We have this treasure in jars of clay” (II Corinthians 4:7).

Most readers can relate to Galli’s acknowledgement, “One never forgets the occasion of being let down by someone you admire.” He continues, “I’ve long hoped to find a heroic figure whom I can admire unflinchingly. But time and again, I’ve had to discover there is no such person.” I don’t think I’ve ever been considered a hero, but I know in my life and ministry I have disappointed and let down people who admired me.

That’s why we need to keep our heroes in perspective. We can look up to them, and appreciate a lot about them, without demanding they be flawless. After all, no one’s perfect

But as Galli notes, there was one – the True Man – who was perfect and “has been known to use ignoble things to shine for his glory.” I’ve seen his glory in many of my heroes, and I hope quite a few have seen his glory in me, flawed and imperfect as I am.

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PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

I know Pride and Prejudice is the title of Jane Austen’s 1813 romance novel, but that’s not what I’m thinking about as I write this post. What I have in mind is some people’s attitude about where they live in relation to where others live.

It first happened to me when I accepted the call to a small church in the Philadelphia area in 1975. A man I looked up to threw a wet blanket on my excitement when he asked me, “Why would you go there?” Then he added, “You could have gotten a good church here in Ohio, Kentucky, or Indiana.” I loved growing up in and going to school in the Cincinnati area, but Jan and I also loved our 10 years in Philadelphia.

Our next move was in 1984 to small but growing community in Southern California and I took some hits from a few Midwesterners about going to the land of hippies and marijuana. That was bad enough, but once we settled in and started the church we moved to plant I often heard snide remarks about Moreno Valley from people who lived in Orange County and other more attractive places in the area. Jan and I thoroughly enjoyed and loved our 32 years in Moreno Valley.

Late last year we relocated to Amarillo, Texas, to be near our grandsons and I was surprised by the negative comments we received from a few in Southern California about the place to which we were moving. You might think I would be used to it, but I was shocked last week when we were in Dallas for a conference to have three different people respond negatively when they learned we were from Amarillo. For the record, Jan and I are overjoyed to be living in Amarillo, being a part of the community, fellowshipping with our new church, and being fully engaged with our grandsons.

I understand and applaud an appropriate pride in terms of where a person lives. I’ve had that in every place I have lived during my 66 years. What I don’t understand is the prejudice some have about the places where others live. It seems to me we can be positive about and pleased with our community without looking down on the communities of others.

I think the prophet Jeremiah’s advice to the Israelites who were taken captive to Babylon is good advice for Christians today regardless of where they live: This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:4-7).

Have pride in where you live and don’t be prejudiced against other places. And be sure to make the most of where you live.

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