The Christmas narrative is told in two Gospels, Matthew and Luke. And then there is the Christmas card version. The problem with the Christmas card version is that it feels like a fairy tale. But it is not. There may be embellished elements of the familiar story – the stable, the full motel, the panicked arrival, the restricted number of Magi, etc. But there is also the true story, as told in the Gospels.
This Christmas lets not be vigilantes criticising the familiar re-telling, but let’s be thankful that Christmas is based on the truth of God’s Son coming to people like us, so that people like us can come to God.
When God the Son became a human, he came all the way to our side. He didn’t just take on flesh, but supercharge it with a divine inner engine. Equally, He didn’t just take on humanity, but play it safe with every luxury divinity could buy. No, Jesus really became one of us.
One way we see this is in His acceptance of His name qualifier. Jesus was a common name in those days, so every Jesus walking around would have some identifier added – Jesus the son of Thaddeus, Jesus the fruit seller, or even Big Jesus. So what identifier stuck with our Jesus? Jesus of Nazareth.
And it stuck. All through His ministry, after His resurrection, even after His ascension to the heavenly throne. Still He is Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus of Nowhere, Galilee. Jesus of a town that nobody was ever proud of. He really did want to come and be with all of
To chase this idea more, click here to read an extended version of this post.
The “child-friendly” Christmas story is not completely safe. After all, the paranoid persecutor, King Herod, instigated a brutal killing of every boy under the age of 2 in Bethlehem. For that community it was horrific, but on the national scale, it would barely have registered – such was the nastiness of Herod.
God delivered Jesus from this attempt on his life. As we preach Christmas we can give the impression that if only humanity could learn our lessons from the Christmas story, then we would just be able to stop such nastiness to one another and the world might remain a lovely place year round. This is naive.
God did not deliver Jesus from Herod to set an example of how we should seek to stop evil in this world by delivering others. He did it because His plan was to deliver innocent Jesus to death for our sake. Christmas is not about us learning to be nice, it is about God’s mission to transform us at great cost to Himself.
The Christmas story is strangely complex. On the one hand you have a poor couple in a poor town in poor circumstances giving birth to a little boy. On the other hand you have angels from heaven telling shepherds from nearby fields, and stars in the heavens telling exceedingly rich nobles from a distant land.
Jesus was not born in a palace, but at the other end of society’s echelon. He was born in Israel, but with visitors from outside. Christmas makes it clear that Jesus’ ministry and goal will not be just for the elite, or even just for the Jews.
Jesus came for everyone. This may be something we reference in our Christmas messages of peace on earth, but does it register in our motivation for an expansive ministry? How will Jesus’ global goal grip your life, your energy, your giving, and your plans in this next year? Perhaps our Christmas ponderings are too passive – we talk of peace on earth in the brief season of a Christmas truce, but maybe Christmas should stir our imaginations and motivations as we think about living for Jesus in the coming year.
Joseph faced very uncertain days. Nobody would trust his word – not his family, not his clients, not his neighbours. He knew that his wife would be talked about, his son would be talked about, and how this would play out was uncertain. And the visit from the angel technically didn’t change that at all. Yes, he knew how she was pregnant. He knew who this child was, but who would ever believe the “miracle child” explanation?
Joseph did not face an uncertain future with faith because God promised to make everything easy. He faced an uncertain future with faith because He trusted God’s bigger plan. Somehow this little baby was to be the Saviour of His people from their sins. Somehow this little baby was God with us. And if God’s bigger plan involves a combination of God with us and a Saviour from our sins, then surely God will work out the future in all its details. He may not fix everything instantly, but if God is that kind of God, surely He should be trusted.
We face uncertainty. A big part of that is the mess of sin, both ours and that of other people. We don’t know how it will play out, nor that everything will be easy. But we can trust God. Why? Because of Jesus – the Lord saves, Immanuel – God with us.
One of my favourite chapters to write in Pleased to Dwell was chapter 8, looking at the ladies that appear in the genealogy of Matthew 1. I won’t go into the detail now, but it is is striking that the line of Christ is not a dream list of superstars. There are certainly some heroes in there, but there are lots of sinners, lots of strugglers, lots of failures.
Even among the women listed, there are question marks galore hanging over their heads (which I think is part of the reason they were chosen for inclusion). The Old Testament line leading to Jesus is not a red carpet, but rather a crimson line of sin. Jesus came from people like us and to people like us. Hallelujah! What a saviour!
The New Testament begins with the birth of Christ. The birth of Christ begins with a genealogy. Forty-two generations from Abraham, via David, via the Exile (the time of the New Covenant), to the birth of Jesus. Why start something so important with something so unengaging as a genealogy?
Perhaps the issue here is with us rather than with Matthew’s inspired choice of literary launch point. If we take time to ponder the genealogy we quickly gain lots of benefit. God’s plan was long-term. God’s faithfulness was persistent. God’s grace was undeserved (look at some of the names on there!).
Jesus coming into this world was not a last minute plan. It was God’s long-settled intention. It was not a different move after others failed. It was the move that all the others were designed to set up. This was it, God was stepping into our world!
The Christmas story seems to be a strange converging of participants. You have a young soon-to-be-married couple, a heavenly host of angels, some shepherds, and some religious astrologers from a foreign land in the East, all converging to meet a little bundle of flesh who was the Son of God. It is a strange story.
Yet the great convergence of Christmas is not so much who gathered by the manger, but what would be achieved by the baby in the manger. For thousands of years the people of Israel had been given promise after promise. Ever since the human heart was fatally corrupted in the Garden of Eden, God had been promising to fulfil His plans to fix the mess we had created.
So this bundle of human flesh was fully the Son of God, the promised Deliverer, come to transform human hearts from death to life, from disobedience to delighted obedience, to forgive sins, to restore the missing Spirit from within and to unite humanity with God in heartfelt unity. The promised New Covenant was here, and he was lying in a manger! The heart of Christmas is not some quaint picture of peaceful gatherings, it is the tiny beating heart that came to rescue ours and make all things new!
The prophet Isaiah anticipated the coming of Jesus the King in his great Emmanuel section. From Isaiah 7-12 the prophet stirs the hope of the coming King, coming from God. He would be the Wonderful Counselor whose great wisdom would accomplish the greatest of challenges. He would be the Mighty God – with all the power and authority that only the Divine One can bring. He would be the Everlasting Father – a forever presence for protection, provision and security. He would be the Prince of Peace – the one whose rule will establish the heavenly peace across the whole earth.
All this adds up, in Isaiah’s anticipation, to be Emmanuel – the God who is with us! That’s the kind of King we need. Christmas says that is the kind of King we have.
Nativity scenes depict the giving of gifts at Christmas. Typically this is seen to be the gifts of the Magi bringing their treasures to Jesus. We sing about what we can bring him: no lamb, no gold? No worries – give him your heart. This is a good thought. But it is really the response.
The gift of Christmas is the giving of Jesus himself. This tiny bundle of flesh was God’s anointed priest, come into the world to represent humanity to God and to provide a sacrifice for human sin. The ultimate gift would be that sacrifice. What could Jesus bring to God in his role as High Priest? No lamb would suffice, no gold could pay enough – so his heart would be pierced. The greatest gift, his life for us.