Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Christmas story.

Merry Christmas! This is certainly an interesting time of year. I think it deserves our attention. Specifically what I'd like us to think about is why Christmas is even here. No, this isn't one of your generic ultraconservative forwarded emails that's going to warn you against the "heathen atheist demons taking over our schools and media," etc. Rather, I am going to examine the original story of Christmas and apply it to all of us, believer or non-.

For our convenience, we shall separate people into three categories. They are as follows:

Group A. People who celebrate Christmas because they love to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, and they read about Him and talk about Him and He is important to them.

Group B. People who celebrate Christmas because it's a tradition. They have nothing against Jesus, or the idea of Him; some of them might even believe in Him and go to church occasionally. But they're not focused on Him this season.

Group C. People who neither believe nor want to. They either don't celebrate Christmas at all, or they celebrate it because the rest of their family is doing it, and who are they to be party poopers?

Okay, let's get on to the story. You've heard it before, but hopefully we can shed some new light on it.

1. An angel comes to Mary and tells her that she is going to bear a son, and He will be the prophesied Messiah, the Son of God. He says to her, "the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:35). Then Jesus is conceived and born to Mary; Joseph is about to cancel his marriage to her, but is told by an angel that everything is okay.
---Group A: We can admire and emulate Joseph, as he was well-versed enough to recognize the prophecies the angel mentioned to him. He had enough faith to trust in the counsel given him. Let's not consider this a "given," for remember, there are many scripturally recorded instances of people seeing signs and angels and still not believing.
---Group B: The virgin birth may be something we struggle to believe. It's certainly miraculous. Where do we draw the line, though, between miracle and madness, between revelation and ridiculous? The Lord doesn't expect us to believe SOME of the things He says; He expects us to believe ALL of them. Maybe if we read and studied a little more we'd start to understand some of those things we don't currently grasp. But "this is clearly not true because I don't understand it" is an inappropriate attitude for any deist. God, by His very nature, is a teacher - and if we don't act like pupils, He is not our God.
---Group C: This had better not be the end of the story. If the world is really creating an annual holiday and making a big fuss about someone's birth, it's certainly not just because the birth itself was unique. Surely there's something about this man's life that made his birth significant? After all, being born is not much of an accomplishment; so, let's move on.

2. To rewind a little, let's note that Caesar Augustus had taxed the empire, so Joseph and Mary had gone to Bethlehem to pay their taxes. This is the place where Jesus was born. Where, specifically? In a manger (dictionary: "a box or trough in a stable or barn from which horses or cattle eat."). Why? Because "there was no room for them in the inn" (Luke 1:7).
---Group A: The Savior of the world was born homeless. And throughout the rest of His life He remained without place to "lay His head" (Matt 8:20). What does that tell us about the relative non-importance of our worldly possessions? God doesn't generally ask us to throw away our homes and cars. But the spirit of the law seems to tell us that if He WERE to ask that very thing, and we hesitated (or refused!), then we're in trouble that is very much not hypothetical.
---Group B: The child's humble circumstances at birth remind us that He never tried to esteem Himself above others. He was never puffed up in boasting or pride. Let's remember to avoid pride (which is admittedly difficult to do). Do we look down on people with contempt? And on the other side, do we look up at people with envy? Either of those would make us guilty of the inconveniently double-sided sin of pride.
---Group C: Great men and women can start from small and simple beginnings. Let's never assume that one's origin can determine his or her potential. Potential to change the world comes from another source entirely, and it has little to do with socioeconomic status.

3. Some shepherds were hanging out in a field watching their flocks (as a side note, this was clearly not in December. But we won't get into that here). All of a sudden they see a brilliant white light and AN ANGEL APPEARS. This must have been startling, and we read about how they were afraid. The angel says, "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." After this news was delivered, a heavenly choir appeared and started singing praises, including the following well-known phrase: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men" (Luke 2:9-14).
---Group A: Revelation means, simply, something being revealed. These plain shepherds received direct revelation. And they weren't even important enough people for us to know what their names were! But they got revelation. What does that tell you? If you don't believe you can receive specific revelation and answers from Deity yourself, because you're "not special enough," then you don't believe in the same God who sent those angels.
---Group B: We have to wonder, why were those shepherds afraid? Just startled? Feeling unworthy? Regardless of their reasons, which were doubtlessly justified, their first advice was to "fear not." That's what the Gospel is about. "Gospel" means "good news," you know. The good news, people, is that we don't have to be afraid. Faith is the opposite of fear.
---Group C: Let's create a hypothetical situation. What if one of those shepherds was not a believer? What if he never trusted the prophecies, never listened to the prophets? Perhaps he was even able to casually dismiss the open vision as a strange but perfectly godless astronomic phenomenon. He still went along with the other shepherds (see verses 15-16) to see what all the commotion was about, didn't he? And there he found his answer. If we don't believe, God won't shove the truth down our throats. If we ever have a desire to believe, or even mere curiosity about religion, then we're going to have to put in some effort to find truth. We're going to have to walk to the manger if we want to see if the baby is there. Otherwise all we can do is fold our arms and shake our heads with distrust and cynicism all day long without ever really proving anything.

4. The shepherds found that it was all true, the baby was there - in a manger of all places! - and everything was just as they'd been told. They went around and told everyone what they'd seen. People "wondered" about these spreading stories (which is an interesting word to use; it can mean many things. Probably some people thought it was true and amazing, and other people thought it was Joker-insane). Meanwhile, "Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:19)
---Group A: The shepherd's first reaction was to go tell everyone. That's what we call in modern parlance "spreading the word." Regardless of whether we're wearing a tie and tag, we'd better be letting people know we are Christians - especially through our good example. Think for a moment of how you think those shepherds felt. Our responsibility is just as great as theirs.
---Group B: Of course people had varied reactions to the news. Throughout Jesus' life, He was always faced with this phenomenon. Some would die for Him, and others would kill Him (and everything in between!) But this variety didn't make Him any less of who He was. Just because people might mock us for being deists, it doesn't mean we ought to make our relationship with God more artificial or casual. Who cares about "fitting in"? In a world as diverse as ours, you'll always fit in with SOMEONE. The real question is, who would you like to fit in WITH? The overjoyed shepherds, or the skeptics?
---Group C: Everyone likes to argue about religion, whether they've got something to say or not. I think we in group C can learn from Mary's example; she didn't feel any need to raise her voice and add to either side of the controversy, but the weight of the events at hand was significant, so she just took some quiet time to reflect and "ponder [these things] in her heart." Perhaps we can all do that this Christmas season. Even if we're not ready to believe, we ought to be ready to ponder. There's always time for that if we make it.

5. Wise men showed up from the east to Jerusalem and have a little chat with King Herod. They asked where the "King of the Jews" was. He had just been born, according to a prophesied new star that had just appeared in the heavens. Their request bothered King Herod, who did a little research and then sent the wise men to Bethlehem. He told them to come back and bring him word when they found the infant.
---Group A: Christ accepts and deserves worship from all corners of the earth; He is the Savior of all people, not just some.
---Group B: Maybe we should remember that Christ is our King, and no one else. This doesn't mean we should all go anarchist and defy any earthly government; however, we must organize our priorities appropriately. Nothing comes before the Lord - not money, not fame, not popularity, not politics, nothing. The second we allow anything other than God to be our primary focus, we are worshiping an idol. The wise men knew where their allegiance belonged. Do we?
---Group C: King Herod severely misinterpreted the prophecies (but so did countless others in Jerusalem), which could be because he never read them. The child Jesus was indeed to become King of the Jews, but His authority was ecclesiastical in nature, not political. Herod's resume didn't need dusting off; his job was never in real danger. The Messiah was to be a different kind of King, and was to deliver the people from spiritual bondage. Let us never make the mistake of thinking that religion "threatens" us. It is there to invite and offer, not to force or compel. Freedom of religion is quite different than freedom FROM religion, and the moment we forget that distinction and try to push religion out of our society is the moment we let our ignorant fear make our decisions - like Herod.

6. A man named Simeon was in the Temple when Mary and Joseph entered with their new child. It had been previously revealed to him that he wouldn't see death until he saw the face of the Lord Jesus Christ. When he saw Mary's son, he held Him, and praised God, and said: "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel."
---Group A: Let's note that Christ is not Jesus' last name. It is a title, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word "Messiah," which means "Annointed One." In other words, the word "Christ" signifies Jesus' role as He who was promised from very, very old days, to come and save Israel - and the world. Those we read about in the New Testament who understood what was going on were usually well-read in their scriptures, many of which are contained in what we now call the Old Testament. Likewise, if we are to understand God's dealings with mankind today, we'd better brush up on our reading. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
---Group B: Simeon could rest in peace because He saw the face of the Lord. We may not be able to literally see His face in this lifetime, but we CAN have peace. We just need to open our eyes and see the miracles all around us.
---Group C: Even if we don't believe in the man whose birth this holiday revolves around, we can certainly celebrate the fact that millions of souls have been able to feel at peace in their last moments, due to their feeling of reconciliation to a God they believed so strongly in during life. Death is an interesting thing, and a strange transition even to those who feel they understand it in fuller context. It's undeniable that having peace of mind during such a uniquely jarring experience is an emotional blessing beyond compare.

7. The wise men found Jesus, and offered him gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh). They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, because he wanted to kill the child. They leave another way, and Mary and Joseph skip town also. Eventually, Herod realizes the wise men aren't coming back; he gets mad and orders a mass infanticide in Bethlehem, in his efforts to remove the potential King.
---Group A: The wise men gave Jesus wonderful gifts. What will you give to Him this year?
---Group B: An argument between God and the wise men is not recorded in the Bible. Wouldn't it be nice if every time the Lord warned us, we listened immediately?
---Group C: When it boils down to it, the spirit of Christmas is about giving. The Christians believe Jesus gave His life, and so they try to offer every day of their own lives in service to the ideals He taught. What are some things of great value that you have been given? How can you find a way to give to others?
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