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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TRADEOFFS AND CHRISTMAS

A lot of us will be exchanging gifts this week, but I don’t think any of us considers his or her gift exchanges tradeoffs. To me, a tradeoff is when you give up something in order to gain something. And if it is a real tradeoff, what you give up is something of value. Christmas is about a huge tradeoff that I will return to in a moment.

I’ve been thinking about this matter of tradeoffs since I left Southern California last week to move to the Texas Panhandle. During that two day drive and the first couple of days after I arrived, I was focused on what I was giving up: familiarity, weather, friends, year round golf on many golf courses, a variety of avenues and opportunities to serve, and all that the greater Los Angeles area has to offer. After 32 years I may have drifted into taking it all for granted and I was miserable.

While my emotions, heart, and mind are not fully resolved yet, I am doing much better today. This is the third major move Jan and I have made in the last 47 years. And in the days, weeks, and months ahead I am confident what I will gain in this tradeoff will more than match what I gained in my previous two similar moves. Our daughter said something over the weekend that got my attention. She reminded me that after Christmas this year, unlike the last few, I won’t have to go through the emotional trauma of saying goodbye to my grandsons.

Now back to the huge tradeoff of Christmas. The Apostle Paul clearly lays it out in II Corinthians 8:9, “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 through his poverty might become rich.” What a great image of God becoming a human in the birth of Jesus!

As we come to Christmas this week let’s consider the tradeoff Jesus made. He was rich and became poor so that you and I could become rich. Not rich in terms of money and things, but rich in terms of forgiveness and salvation. The baby Jesus grew and became the man Jesus. And the man Jesus fulfilled the purpose of His coming—that through His poverty you and I might become rich. “Joy to the world, the Lord has come!” Merry Christmas.

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THE TIMING OF CHRISTMAS

Have you ever wondered why Jesus was born when He was and not sooner or later? In a non-traditional Christmas passage the Apostle Paul writes in Galatians 4:4, “when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman.” Paul is telling his first readers as well as us that it was not just at any time, but at the right time in keeping with God’s plan that Jesus was born.

Jesus was born at the right time, but we don’t know exactly when that time was. As surprising as it is to us, the early church did not celebrate the birth of Jesus—only His resurrection. And when they did begin celebrating His birth there were more than a dozen different dates chosen. It wasn’t until the fourth century that December 25th was settled upon and that date was chosen to counter ancient pagan festivals celebrating the winter solstice. We aren’t even sure of the year in which Jesus was born! But we do know that the timing, set by God, was right.

More important than the timing of Christmas is the what of Christmas: “God sent his Son, born of a woman.” Everyone can agree, regardless of what they believe about Him, that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus. What makes some uncomfortable is the idea that Jesus is God’s Son and that God sent Him. And perhaps even more challenging in terms of belief, the fact that God sent His Son tells us that Jesus existed prior to His conception in the womb of Mary.

Flowing from the what of Christmas is the why of Christmas. Paul continues in verse 5 concerning the reason for sending Jesus, “to redeem those under the law that we might receive adoption to sonship.” The idea of being redeemed suggests the image of a slave. A slave in the first century in the Roman Empire could be set free only if someone paid the purchase price to set that slave free. As those under the law, before we were redeemed we were slaves. But on the cross Jesus paid the penalty to purchase our freedom. A redeemed slave is no longer a slave. Our redemption in Christ makes us free from the guilt and punishment we deserve.

But the why of Jesus’ coming was more than just our redemption; it was also for our adoption. In the Roman Empire when an upper-class family selected a young person for adoption that person was on probationary status until they proved themselves worthy. If they failed, their adoption would be revoked and they would be kicked out of the family. But if they measured up, eventually they were given full status as sons and would become heirs of the family estate.

In Galatians 4:7 Paul gives us the result of Christmas, “So you are no longer slaves, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.” Because of what God has done for us in Jesus we are not on probation and we do not have to measure up by showing our worthiness. We have been redeemed and fully adopted as heirs. Not only that, Paul tells us in verse 6 that God has sent the Holy Spirit into our hearts to confirm that we are His children.

Along with everything else you are doing this Christmas season, I encourage you to take a few moments and reflect on the non-traditional Christmas passage of Galatians 4:4-7. Consider the timing, the what, the why, and the result of God sending His Son. Praise and thank Him for the privilege of being redeemed and adopted as well as having the indwelling gift of the His Holy Spirit.

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The Sights, Sounds, and Smells of Christmas

Here is the link to an article I wrote about this week’s celebration. I hope you enjoy it.

http://christianstandard.com/2015/12/the-sights-sounds-and-smells-of-christmas/

Feel free to share and post any observations below.

And Merry Christmas.

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THREE CHRISTMAS QUESTIONS

As we come to our Christmas celebration next week I want to highlight four non-traditional Christmas Bible references and ask three questions about Christmas. It isn’t that I don’t like the familiar passages from Matthew 2 and Luke 2; how could anyone not like those two wonderful accounts? But these four that are not usually read at Christmas also speak to what we are remembering. And while I don’t think “cherry picking” verses is the best way to read the Bible, these four passages are pretty clear.

The first is John 1:1 and 14: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was 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.”

The second verse is II Corinthians 8:9: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

The third verse is Galatians 4:4: “When the time had fully come, God sent his son, born of a woman, born under the law.”

The last of these passages is Philippians 2:5b-7: “Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”

Before Jesus was conceived and born He was with God and was God. He was also rich, but He did not insist upon maintaining that status. He was willing to become a human, a poor servant. His conception was unique, but not His birth. He was born like you and I, of a woman, and at the time God had selected. He gave up His status and wealth and became a poor human servant for us—that we might become rich. For us to become rich means that we might be redeemed (Galatians 4:5)—forgiven and saved and become children of God (John 1:12). This Jesus whose birth we celebrate was full of grace and truth. And the Apostle Paul calls and challenges us as Jesus’ followers to be like Him.

Now the three questions (the first two were asked by the pastor in a message I heard in church this past Saturday evening).

Are you amazed? As we remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus again this year are you amazed by what God did? Think about it. God became a man through the normal birth process with the purpose of providing for our salvation.

Are you humbled? As we remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus again this year are you humbled by what God did for you? He became poor that we might become rich. He became human, a humble servant, that we might be restored as children of God.

Is what God did for you through Jesus making a difference in your life? I’m pretty sure we all can say “yes.” Perhaps this Christmas it can make even more of a difference.

Which of these non-traditional Christmas passages or Christmas questions most gets your attention? Let us know in the comments below and feel free to share this post.

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