As a child there is no doubt that I experienced more joy in the weeks leading up to Christmas than I did at any other time of the year. I mean, really, so many exciting things were going on: Mom baking cookies (pinwheels and fruitcake cookies!), preparing candy (divinity and peanut butter fudge!) and boiling custard (I’m pretty sure that custard will be served with every meal in heaven); practicing for the annual church Christmas play (who can forget the stage curtains made out of bed sheets and green cloths line wire?); putting up Christmas trees at home, church and school (I really miss the sight and smell of scraggly cedar trees laden with stringy silver icicles and hot glass bulbs); watching Frosty, Charlie Brown, and Rudolph on TV (I cried every year when they wouldn’t “let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games.”); listening to the scratchy sound of Christmas music playing on an old record player (especially The Chipmunk’s album that our cousins, Karen and Steve, had); and of course the Glasgow Christmas parade, Christmas caroling, Christmas morning, family gatherings, exchanging gifts… The list goes on and on.
This year leading up to Christmas, I found it hard to reproduce those warm, joy-filled emotions of Christmas as a child. Usually lying on the couch with the Christmas tree and fireplace glowing in the background is enough to transport my mind and emotions back to those glorious days. But this year nothing seemed to work. And I really can’t say I am disappointed.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with all our “Christmas-y” experiences and feelings; I undoubtedly count them among my most treasured memories. But Christmas is so much more than that, isn’t it? I mean, it’s appropriate that Christmas is the “hap- happiest time of the year.” But Christmas happiness should not be rooted in activities and traditions. These things are intended to be a celebration and reminder of an event. Its easy to lose ourselves in the activities and traditions and totally miss the birth of the Savior. Will you pause briefly now with me to consider the “good news of great joy” that we celebrate at Christmas?
The second chapter of Luke is the most commonly recited version of the Christmas story. Heck, its even recited in A Charlie Brown Christmas! But over the years I have come to appreciate the story as told in the first chapter of John and the second chapter of Philippians. Both describe the event that is the focal point of Christmas: God’s startling and unexpected act of taking on human form and entering His own creation. Of course we Christians have come to know this as “the incarnation.” Christmas is (or should be) a celebration of the marvelous incarnation. And nowhere is this told in more moving fashion that in the Philippians 2:6-11 passage known by many as the kenosis hymn (kenosis means “the act of emptying”). It follows some introductory exhortations by Paul:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,Philippians 2:1-11
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
To outsiders, the incarnation is one of the most controversial concepts in Christianity. The incarnation is scandalous for the simple reason that many believe that a holy God could not possibly reside in human flesh. The suggestion that God would inhabit the flesh of his fallen and rebellious creatures is blasphemous. (As you can imagine, a crucified God is even more outlandish. It is absurd, from the perspective of some, to suggest that God would allow himself to be unjustly executed at the hands of those he created. “No god, worth his salt”, they say, “would behave in such a manner.”)
And yet the New Testament places the incarnation (and crucifixion) at the very core of orthodox Christianity. To take away the incarnation is to empty Christianity of meaning. To have Christianity, we have to have Christmas. “God coming down” is an essential act in the story of Redemption. It is necessary for him to become human, to “empty himself”, in order to demonstrate fully the extent of his love for humanity. That’s what John 3:16’s “For-God-so-loved-the-world” is all about. And the idea resurfaces in 1 John 3:16 – “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us.” From a human standpoint, the ultimate expression of love is to offer one’s very life for the benefit of the beloved.
Consider Paul’s purpose in reminding the Philippians of the miraculous birth of Christ. He prefaces the beautiful kenosis hymn by urging the believers in the Philippian church to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus on Christmas morning” (vs 5). Okay, Paul didn’t use the phrase “Christmas morning”; but you get my meaning, don’t you? Paul essentially is saying, “When you look at the manager scene, consider what kind of God it is that you serve. A God that was willing to step down out of heaven and enter fully into the chaos, brokenness and filth of your world. And he came not as an earthly king or a person of privilege. No! He came as a lowly servant and allowed himself to be cruelly and unjustly crucified. That is the kind of attitude and life that God will exalt.”
In a previous blog post, I introduced you to a wonderful couple that Leslie and I have tried to emulate since the earliest days of our marriage. Having a real, live human being to serve as an example of how to live is probably the most effective way for a person to have their life transformed. Think of parents, coaches or teachers that have served as role models for you. Real people living real lives have the capacity to change us like almost nothing else. That’s what Jesus represented – a real live person living a real life. A birth, life and death that Paul is urging the Philippians (and us, I believe) to imitate.
This Christmas, stop and consider what the circumstances of Jesus’ birth reveal about the God of the New Testament. And consider how he lived his life and how you can best imitate that kind of life in your own circumstances. The gospels give us great insights on who Jesus was and how he lived his life. Read them. Pattern your life after them.
Now you may be saying, “Reading about Jesus is one thing; it would be more helpful to have a living, breathing example in front of me. That’s what I need to see.” Well, I ended last week’s blog with a teaser about a story I was planning to include in today’s post. I decided to save that for my next blog. In it, you’ll get the opportunity to meet a real, live person whose life reflects Jesus’ attitude as described in Philippians 2. As a result, this person’s life is a perpetual re-telling of the Christmas story. So try and read next week’s post. It’ll be a great way to end 2018. And perhaps you’ll be motivated to better imitate the God we celebrate at Christmas in the new year.