More Than A Feeling
Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of my favourite Christmas films. It tells the story of how a boy - Charlie Brown - just isn't feeling it in the run up to Christmas. So he goes on a quest to discover the true meaning of Christmas. His perspective is finally transformed when Linus stands up at the school Christmas play practice and recites Luke 2:1-20.
Have you ever felt that way before? In the midst of the busy-ness of December, the cultural accretions that have shaped Christmas into something quite different than how first century believers acknowledged the virgin birth can easily cloud our minds, clutter our hearts, and mess with our feelings.
Growing up, I very much had a feeling-based approach to Christmas. I loved the colours and the sounds and the trees and the gifts and the northern Europe/Germanic traditions that have shaped our conception of Christmas. For me, the quintessential Christmas would have been in some New England small town with chestnuts, open fire, familiar Christmas songs, the family gathered, snow, stockings, an amazing meal and lots and lots of gifts.
I could imagine that some place like the Santa Clause Village in Lapland really existed, just inside the Arctic Circle, with reindeer and snowmen and elves hiding behind the trees. I knew Santa wasn't real, but snow and scarves and sleds all seemed such fun. Staring at the lights on the tree, dazzled by the ornaments, anticipating the grand morning, it all worked to create some amazing feeling of ... Christmas.
But when I got older, I realised that much of the world's population lived in the southern hemisphere. There are people for whom Christmas is in the middle of summer: it's time to brai in South Africe and throw some meat on the barbie in Australia. I like a barbecue as much as the next person, but that's not Christmas!
It eventually dawned on me that the essence of Christmas was much deeper, much simpler, and much more profound than the cultural trappings I had associated with it. Indeed, Christmas was more than a feeling.
When we look at the story as Luke records it in chapter 2 of his gospel, it is striking in its simplicity. There is no embellishment, no hyperbole, no exaggeration; Luke simply records what happened. In his recounting of the Christmas story, three things stand out:
First, Christmas is facts, not feelings. At the very heart of the Christmas story is is the historical occurrence of Jesus' birth. Luke notes that she gave birth to her firstborn son. Though simple, this is profound: God himself personally steps into history by becoming a human. Remarkable! And regardless of what we feel, this happened.
Second, God determines the meaning of Christmas. When angels appeared to shepherds watching their flocks in fields, they didn't simply mention the fact that a baby was born; they announced the meaning of that fact. In short, unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. This is consistent with what the angel spoke to Joseph that 'he will save his people from their sins' (Matthew 1:21).
Note these three components: first, Jesus is a saviour. Second, he is the Christ (Greek for Messiah), the promised one who will save his people. Third, he is Lord - not simply a martyr, but God himself, the highest king, who in humility is taking action to do something people cannot do.
The meaning of Christmas is that God personally stepped into history to save sinners. That's us. That's how we get written into the story. By turning from living for ourselves, by believing this good news, the facts of Christmas, of Easter, of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God brings us to himself. That's how we get written into the story.
Third, Christmas involves a mission. The shepherds had to act on the word the angel gave them. They believed it, they took the remarkable step of leaving their flocks, which was their livelihood, to go and see this Jesus who was born. Knowing the facts of Christmas are insufficient, believing they are true is not enough; we have to act and receive the gift of Christ for ourselves.
But not only did the shepherds have a personal experience, they also engaged in powerful witness. According to Luke, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child Luke 2:17). They were so touched by God's grace that had to share it with others. God had given them both the facts and the meaning of Christmas; this is really good news that has to be passed on.
From the Margins to the Messiah
The shepherds were recipients of God's grace. These guys were on the margins of society; they were not part of the mainstream. People in 1st century Judea appreciated the benefits of shepherding, but these guys were dirty loners who spent their lives with animals. And that's exactly who God honoured as their first audience of the gospel message.
It may be that this Christmas you feel like you're on the outside looking in. Like Charlie Brown, you may not be feeling it. That's OK. Remember, Christmas is so much more than a feeling. It's a set of facts (Jesus is born), with an intrepretation from God (Jesus is the Saviour), attached to a mission (come and see the new born king).
God's invitation is to come in faith, come in from the margins, and come and experience the joy of knowing your Messiah. This isn't as nostalgic as Christmas in Lapland, but it's a Christmas we can experience every day of the year.