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.
When we read through the Old Testament we see some great men and women of faith. Individuals who changed history as they served God. One of the greatest was Moses. He led the nation of Israel out of Egypt and through the wilderness for forty years. He knew what it was to shepherd God’s people under the most extreme circumstances. And Moses was a great prophet who represented God to the people. But Moses was not a great prophet because he was a great man. He was weak. He had a stutter. He struggled in many ways. What set Moses apart was not his personal strength, but his face-to-face connection with God.
Moses was told that there would one day be a greater prophet than him, also from the people of Israel, who everyone should listen to. Christmas introduces us to that prophet. Again, he didn’t come in the power of his own position, but was born in very humble circumstances and appeared to be incredibly weak. And yet this greater prophet could speak for God because he knew God intimately – he could speak of what he saw and heard in his forever fellowship with his Father. And he could speak for God because he was God. Christmas is a story saturated with apparent weakness, yet it points us to the ultimate revelation of God, the coming of God the Son to represent the Father to us. Listening carefully to Jesus is the most important thing we could ever do.
Ever since the Fall of humanity into sin our perspective has been skewed. The Fall was a deathly move towards the lie that I am in charge of my own life. So what happens? Even when God’s Spirit convicts us with our sin, we still have a default tendency to think that we need to do something to sort ourselves out.
Christmas challenges our “what-must-we-do” assumption. The shepherds didn’t come to worship a package of instructions. The wise men did not bring gifts to lay before a telegram from heaven. Herod did not feel threatened by an owners manual from on high. No. Christmas is about a person. It is about God’s Son being birthed into our world. Somehow, God’s solution to the sin problem was not to instruct us, but to come to us, to live with us, to die for us, and to invite us to trust Him. If He would go so far, surely we should trust? And surely we must eventually stop trying to sort ourselves!
Christmas says what matters is not What? but Who? The answer? Him.
Here is a quote from chapter 1 of Pleased to Dwell:
“Humanity was not made in the image of a power-hungry dictator. The dominion described is not one of conquering and crushing, but of multiplying and caring.”
Fast forward not very far from creation and the seeds of a corrupted Christmas are found in the Fall of Genesis3. We became conquerors and crushers. This manifests in epic wars, but also in pre-Christmas shopping trips. All that we struggle with in the Christmas season is the fruit of our Fall into sin. And simply scolding each other to be less selfish, less grabby, etc., does not make the slightest bit of difference. Which is why we need the true Christmas to defeat all that is ugly about Christmas. Jesus came into our world to capture hearts, rescue us from the deathly clutches of sin and draw us back to what God created us for – a loving and giving and sharing dominion, a rule like His.
When you find elements of Christmas distasteful, whether it be gluttony, greed, selfishness, or whatever, let it nudge your heart to thank God for Christmas. Jesus did not come to give us a holiday. He came to give us the true life we long since lost.
Christmas can be a nostalgic season. For many it is a painful reminder of who is no longer present. For most of us, there will also be happy memories tied into Christmas – the big meals, the special outings, the family gatherings, the fireplace, the Christmas stockings, etc.
Perhaps we look back to Christmas as a child and now know the other side of that. Perhaps it is only for the sake of children today that we bother with all that is involved. After all, meals require lots of planning and shopping in often insanely busy supermarkets. Presents take planning, paying and wrapping, not to mention hiding. Family gatherings are sometimes more complex and difficult for adults than the children could even fathom.
Christmas – a season of being busy and on the verge of burnout? It can feel that way.
Perhaps there is an upside to that though. The first Christmas was not as nostalgic as our Christmas card images. Mary and Joseph were under stress. The wise men were under stress from Herod. The shepherds had their worlds rocked by that angelic visit. The whole region was under stress from the census. Their stress was not our stress, but nostalgic and cosy it was not.
Jesus did not come as a visitor to experience only our best hospitality and the facade of our being in control. He came right into the heart of our stressed world. He saw us at our worst. He experienced the exact opposite of middle eastern hospitality for most of his recorded ministry. He came right to the heart of our messed up world.
When Christmas is marked with stress this year, remember that Jesus came into that for our sake.
And if you get a moment or two with your feet up, enjoying fine food and good company, remember that because Jesus came into our mess, we can experience the richness of the world as he intended it to be.
This Christmas, may every happy moment stir your heart for heaven, and may every stressful moment point your heart to Christ.
During the early centuries after Christ the church developed the advent season. It is a season to prepare our hearts to welcome Christ. It used to be a season of fasting in some quarters, but now is probably needed more as a perspective check in the midst of consumer feasting.
Think about the tenses. It would be easy to put advent in past tense – a season to remind our hearts of the coming of Christ. That would be amazing. God become flesh and dwelling amongst us, come to die in our place, to reconcile us to God, etc. A past tense advent would be wonderful, but we have more.
Advent has future tense – it is a season to prepare our hearts to see Christ. It is not only to celebrate his birth in Bethlehem, but to stir our hearts with the hope that one day we will see our bridegroom face to face. Advent is not just about ancient Bethlehem, but also about the future meeting when the man Christ Jesus returns for his own. Because of the incarnation, we also have a hope for the future that transcends death (for a human has defeated death!) Past and future, this would be amazing. But there is one more tense:
Advent has a present tense – it is a season to prepare our hearts to encounter Christ now. Because he became one of us and the incarnation is forever, that means that we have a present tense advent too! We can be, by His Spirit, united to Christ today. What a privilege! To know him, to love him, to communicate with him, and to enjoy him now as well as forever.
Advent is a season of all the tenses! And advent begins today.
During Advent I will be posting thoughts here, on twitter (@PleasedtoDwell) and on Instagram (@peter.mead) – but to get the full deal, let me encourage you to get hold of a copy of Pleased to Dwell . . . 24 short chapters pointing us to Christ for 24 busy days when everything will try to steal our hearts away from Him!
Halloween is now gone, and Thanksgiving will soon be finished, so as a culture we are in full swing for Christmas. It is easy to grumble about this. Too much hype. Too much marketing. Too little Jesus. And so on. But maybe instead of grumbling wewould do well to let every Christmas reference, every sprig of holly, every flash of tinsel, every note of John Lennon, every advert for turkey, let’s let every Christmassy detail nudge us to think about Christ, talk to Christ, thank the Father for Christ. Maybe we could turn the marketing hype to our own advantage. At the same time let’s pray for our culture, that people would be able to meet the wonder of Christmas himself – God who became man and dwelt amongst us!
During advent 2015, we will be posting daily snippets from Pleased to Dwell. Hopefully these will help advent be a season of turning our hearts toward Christ. You can buy the book to read the complete chapters (24 short chapters for 24 busy days!)