Celebrate the Reason for the Season!
I love Christmas! I don’t mean the decorations and the lights, the presents and the wonderful array of culinary delights, although, I like them. I love the story of Christmas, its simplicity in the midst of complexity. I like the powerful reminder that a little child can be transformational, reminding us that our God is so much greater than what we can think or imagine. I like how God reminds us that into the most unlikely of circumstances, He is at work doing incredible things. While we often go to great lengths to design our sanctuaries, God allows His Son to be born into the most humble of circumstances. There was no antiseptic hospital room, no comfortable church building, no stained glass windows or carpet of any color. Jesus was born into a barn. He came into a world that didn’t really want Him, to a place reserved for the beasts of the fields.
I like how He manifests His grace in such a clear way that even the unbelieving world understands it, and even, to some degree, practices it. Think about how we give good gifts during this Christmas season, and how generosity often flows. More people volunteer at soup kitchens and donate to food pantries during this season, not to mention programs like Operation Christmas Box, Angel Tree and Toys for Tots! I have often found that even the most “unreligious” person is a bit more open during the holiday season. What would happen if we simply recognized and sanctified some of the more worldly aspects of Christmas? One of my favorite ornaments is a figurine of Santa kneeling at the manger. It’s a powerful picture that grace flows from grace. We love because He first loved us. We give because we were first given to. Jesus reminds us, “Freely you have received, freely give” (Mt. 10:8). Christmas is a wonderful time to share our faith as we engage in the Master’s business and give that faith away.
God weaves together a marvelous story of how He often uses ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things. All the characters surrounding Jesus are what I consider pivotal people. In fact, maybe God is reminding us that these are the very people He sent Jesus to, and now sends to us. An unwed, pregnant teenager, and her betrothed, appearing as if they are fleeing from their family and friends to be spared the embarrassment of the situation. They arrive in an unfamiliar town, probably panicked because she knew that the baby was coming whether they were ready or not. People looked past them, the way that we often do to the stranger, the homeless, and the helpless. The fact that the inn keeper sends them to the barn was probably less to do with compassion as it was to do with profiteering. Into the midst of this chaotic situation God comes to us in the form of a tiny baby.
Ironically, the first visitors to the baby Jesus were shepherds who were coming in from the fields. We have no idea how long they had been out in the fields tending sheep, but they likely looked disheveled and smelled like sheep. These outcasts come at the invitation of the angels to a place that would likely be comfortable to them, that cave that housed the livestock. What a powerful reminder that God sent Jesus, certainly for the whole world. He came for the oddballs and the outcasts, for the lonely and hurting, for those who are ashamed or embarrassed because of choices they may have made or circumstances they may find themselves in.
It was for people like that—it was for people like us that Jesus came to earth. Consider the characters that God assembled to accomplish the Savior’s birth. They aren’t exactly the kind of folks we may choose to hang around with. They aren’t exactly the kind of people we might expect or even welcome in our churches. They were definitely people who look differently than “us”. Not exactly the kind of people we might invite into our home. While we may not look or act exactly like any of the characters in the true Christmas story, the truth is we are just like them. What we share in common with all of these people is that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace, which He delivered in an amazing way in the miraculous gift of the Christ-child. This was not just a gift for an ancient world. It is a gift for each of us today! Our sins and situations may differ, but the separation from our Heavenly Father is the same, and Jesus is the One who came to bridge that gap. God saw our need, and in His love and compassion, He gave us the world’s greatest gift; His name is Jesus! He came as the One who forgives sins and grants us new and eternal life.
The Apostle Paul writes in Galatians 4, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Ga 4:4–5). This grace now makes us God’s children by faith. He gathers us around Word and Sacrament. He loves and nurture us, sends us out into the world to engage in the Master’s business so we can also connect people to Jesus! We now get to share that gift with others, and what better time to do that than when people are open to giving gifts and receiving them.
Have you ever thought about the fact that Jesus was placed in a manger? As a child I always thought the manger was the barn that held the little nativity figurines. A manger is simply a feeding trough used to feed the cattle. It comes from the Greek word φάτνη, whose root means simply to eat. In the Middle English it is translated mangeour; from Anglo-French mangure; from Latin manducare to chew, devour; from manducus glutton; from mandere to chew. Why the etymology lesson? Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem, translated “house of bread”. Jesus would later say, “I am the Bread of Life.” Maybe I’m grasping at straw (pun intended) but I wonder if there isn’t a Sacramental connection already at the birth of Jesus pointing us to God’s desired communion with mankind? Scripture is filled with images of the miraculous things God did with bread. We are privileged to receive our Lord’s very body in, with and under the bread of Holy Communion. This is a gift of pure grace to assure us of His forgiveness and promise of eternal life. What a precious gift this is!
Bread is a staple of life. It sustains us, feeds us, and satisfies us. People who are on a low carb diet often find bread is the hardest food to cut out. Close your eyes and think of the smell of a loaf of bread baking in the oven! I’ve been involved with churches that bring a loaf of bread to visitors to thank them for worshipping with them, explaining that beyond the bread the desire was to share with them the Bread of Life, Jesus. Now, imagine for a moment, what motivated, evangelical Lutheran Christian people could do during these weeks leading up to Christmas to invite friends and neighbors to worship Jesus, simply by delivering a loaf of bread, sharing the story of how Jesus came to feed us and give us new life. What conversations might be begun, what friendships might be developed, what transformation might take place?
As Lutheran Christians who believe the Bible to be God’s Word, and beyond that to proclaim the power of God’s Word, we need to trust that Word in these weeks leading up to our celebration of the Savior’s birth. God promises His Word will accomplish what He desires it to do, that it won’t return to Him void (Is.55:10ff), and we are the ones He is sending with that Word. So we have to use that Word in wise ways to point to Jesus.
I was recently at a workshop with Pastor Billy Brath relating some of the things he learned as a Disney cast member to the Church. One particular thing that stood out to me was the idea that “everything speaks.” The thought is, related to the church, that our choices speak. There is meaning behind it, even if we don’t intend for that to happen. When we leave our facility in disrepair, we may get used to it, but to those who may visit it speaks volumes. I mention this simply as a segway to say that at Christmas time we can use this to our advantage. Everything about this season speaks to our faith in Jesus if we are creative enough and thoughtful enough to think it through. Christmas lights point us to the Light of the World, Jesus! The fact that we eat special foods reminds us, again, of the Bread of Life, who came to care for all our needs. Christmas music often overtly speaks of Jesus and His birth. Sometimes you have to get real creative, but you can. Take for instance Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Here is a great song about how lonely life can be because we feel isolated and different, and how accepting God is, and how He can use anyone that He calls in His love to reach others with His love. Maybe that’s a stretch, but you get the idea. Let everything about this season point you, and others, to Jesus, because the fact is, He is the reason for the season!
There is a great deal of anticipation about Christmas, and well there should be. In about a month it will be a memory. However, the story lives on throughout the year. The truth behind it is as powerful in July as it is in December. Personally, I keep a couple of nativity scenes in my office throughout the year, and have done so for many years, as a reminder of how God has blessed me and given me new life, and as a conversation starter as God grants me opportunity. I love the story and I love the season! Most of all I love Jesus, who sacrificially came to an obscure place in a strange setting to give me new life—and you too! So go all out for Christmas as you find unique ways to tell the story!
God’s blessings for a wonderful and enlightening journey to the manger!