We haven’t done it this year yet (we might be a little late!), but one of the things the girls particularly always like to do at Christmas time is go and look at the lights — we’d ooo and ahh at all the extravagant decorations. And when the girls were little, Raye Jeanne and I would sometimes exchange glances saying without words, saying, “The lights are impressive but the message is ridiculous…”
Amidst a few mangers were dozens of groups of reindeer pulling Santa, Peanuts and muppet characters, Frosty the Snowman, the Tran-Siberian Orchestra and “Silent Night.” The mixture often moved clearly into confusion and silliness (at best).
But perhaps the best example of the confusion of Christmas I’ve read about is what an Episcopalian priest wrote a few years ago:
“There are few causes to which I am more passionately committed than that of Santa Claus. Santa Claus deserves not just any place in the church but the highest place of honor, where he should be enthroned as the long-bearded, ancient of days, the divine and holy one whom we call God.
“Santa Claus is God the Son. ‘You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why, Santa Claus is coming to town’ simply refers to God the Son slipping into the secrets of the heart as easily as he slips down the chimney of the house.
“Santa Claus is God the Father, the creator of heaven and earth, in whose hand is a pack bursting at its seams with the gifts of His creation. Santa Claus is God the Holy Spirit who comes with the sound of gentle laughter with a shape like a bowl full of jelly to sow in the night the seeds of good humor. Santa Claus indeed deserves the exalted and enthroned place in the church, for he is God, Son, Father and Holy Spirit.
“So there he is: God the Son, God the Father, God the Holy Spirit. I’ve seen him in the toy store. I’ve seen him in his car on the freeway. And when I saw him with his crazy beard and his baggy red suit, I saw more than the seasonal merchant of cheap plastic toys, I saw no less than the triune God.”
Now there is confusion!
While we certainly don’t embrace such ideas, there are circumstances related to the advent of Christ that are paradoxes — realities about His coming that seem incongruous. Yet rather than being ridiculous, these realities are sublime. They provide content to our hope and joy for our worship. That’s one reason we’ve spent three Sundays thinking about the incarnation and the union between Christ’s deity and humanity. What is “unusual” and paradoxical or contradictory to us is perfectly within the scope and framework of the character of God.
Here are three more of these paradoxical truths.
1. Peace in a Time of Trouble (Lk. 2:1, 14)
We have been living with war and trouble abroad for over a decade now. And many of us can remember many wars beyond that — the conflict in Iraq, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Korean Conflict, and World War II. But we are not only people to know what it means to live in a time of trouble and war. With a very cursory reference to the Roman government, Luke (2:1) points to the conflict experienced in Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth as well. Augustus was the supreme ruler of the world at the time and he was no friend to the Jews.
Israel was one of the nations that were conquered and controlled by the Romans, and the Israelites had great hostility for the Romans, though unable to escape their control. We see hints at that tension throughout the ministry of Christ.
It is in the midst of this conflict and trouble that the declaration of the angels comes: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (Lk. 2:14). It is a most unlikely message to a people who had no expectation of peace.
Now the people and even the disciples often thought that the peace Jesus brought was civil peace and a respite from the Roman domination (the disciples even ask about it at the Ascension in Acts 1). And it would have been tempting for them to think that when hearing the angels’ announcement.
But the peace Jesus offers is a different kind (and far better kind) of peace: it is peace with God. There may be individuals who oppose us, and sometimes various governments are our enemies, but the greatest enemy any man has is God. And Christ came to reconcile us to Him, so that we would no longer be at war with the Lord but that we would be at peace with Him — made both friends and son! By His death, He made us who displeased God to be those who pleased Him.
From beginning to end of His life, Jesus brings peace!
John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.
John 20:19 So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and *said to them, “Peace be with you.”
Rom. 5:1 Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
2 Cor. 5:18 Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.
2. Joy Tempered by Suffering (Mt. 2:16-18)
One of the great verses of Christmas is Lk. 2:14; the most tragic one has to be Mt. 2:16-18:
“Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi. Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: ‘a voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more.’”
We have recoiled in horror in the past few weeks about the tragedy in Newtown, CT. It is an awful tragedy. That someone would kill children — or anyone — in such a manner is a demonstration of just how depraved the human heart is. Two thousand years ago, there was a very similar massacre in the village of Bethlehem. Given that the small town may have had a population of only 1500, it is likely that “only” 15-20 boys were killed in Herod’s rampage — a number similar to Newtown. Yet there is a difference. Herod wanted to kill the Christ.
We talk about the death of innocent life in Newtown, and there is a sense in which that is a true characterization. Those individuals had not sinned against the gunman. They were innocent of sin against him. Yet none of them were innocent of sin. All of them were sinners.
But the One who Herod wanted to kill was wholly innocent of any sin. He was pure and blameless in His birth (the only one ever born that way), and He maintained that purity. And Herod wanted to kill Him. And so ultimately would all the religious leaders, and all the masses of people, and even one of the men crucified alongside Him on the cross. For all the joy of Christmas, truth is that He has enemies who are all sourced in Enemy!
Embracing Christ does not mean the absence of sorrow; it may mean the intensification of it (2 Tim. 3:12); yet it need not cause despair (Mt. 5:11-12) —
“Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt 5:11–12)
3. Humble People as Instruments of Eternal Tasks
Think about the people in the Christmas story — they are all supremely ordinary! Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men (“no-name Gentiles who were prominent in their own country, but nameless in Israel and before the King of Kings), Anna, Simeon, the inn-keeper — ordinary, one and all!
Interestingly, the few “powerful” people — Herod, Caesar, religious leaders — all rejected Christ!
The story of God’s redemption is the story of God using ordinary people. He uses ordinary people to accomplish His purposes to remind us that the focus of the Christmas story is not on us but on Christ; and the power of the gospel to transform is not inherent in us, but granted to us by Him —
2 Cor. 4:7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves;
2 Tim. 2:20-21 Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.
1 Cor. 2:4-5 and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.
So it is that James Boice has written,
“Christmas is for the little people.…Christmas is not for the great of this world, at least not more than the others. It was not for the great in Christ’s time. Caesar knew nothing of the birth of Jesus Christ. Neither did the Roman senate, the Greek philosophers, the generals. Not even the Jewish high priests or the members of the Sanhedrin knew about it. Christmas was for the people who were not important. It is for such people today.” [The Christ of Christmas.]
One of the messages of Christmas is all the apparent paradoxes of the event. Whether it is infinite deity incarnated in genuine humanity or peace in a time of trouble or suffering in a time of joy or the humble used as instruments of the eternal, there are paradoxes of Christmas. And they all point to one supreme reality: God’s agenda is different than ours.
And that agenda is manifested in Christ and the cross: “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).
This is the great paradox of the Christmas story. This is why we are irresistibly attracted to this familiar story again. “It is the reversal of roles at God’s cost for our benefit.” [Boice, The Christ of Christmas.]