THE TRUE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS
Last week I discussed why I don’t think boycotting stores who say “holidays” rather than “Christmas” helps accomplish the goal of keeping Christ in Christmas. Today I want to discuss the true meaning of Christmas. If we can’t articulate what the true meaning of Christmas is, then how can we do anything to keep Christ at its center? I will be focusing on the Christmas story as it is told in Luke 2.
“¶ In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. ¶ And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ¶ “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”¶ When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” (Luke 2:1–20 ESV)
At the center of this story is an announcement from an angel. This is the third of such announcements in Luke. First, Gablriel appeared to Zechariah to announce that he would have a son, John the Baptist. The second announcement is when Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce that she would give birth to the Savior. And now, an angel will announce the birth of that child. As Christians, we know this announcement to be be one of good news. So, I want to ask three questions regarding this proclamation of good news that I think will help get at the heart of the true meaning of Christmas.
1) To Whom was the Good News Announced?
If I had somehow been in charge of writing this story (and thank God I wasn’t!), I might have had things go differently. For instance, I would have had an army of angels show up at the pinnacle of the Jewish temple in broad daylight announcing the birth of the Messiah, perhaps with a quick detour to Caesar’s palace in Rome before returning to heaven. That way, both the Jewish leaders and the Romans king could see who the true king and Messiah is. Well, God did just the opposite. The angels appeared to Shepherds…in the middle of the night. The outcasts of society…when no one else was awake…on the outskirts of a tiny town called Bethlehem. What does this tell us? For one thing, God’s ways are not our ways. He was not interested in making a public display of power right then. Perhaps it also tells us something about the message of Christmas. It is not for the prideful or the arrogant. It is not for the self righteous or those who are attempting to earn their way to heaven. It is for those who would humble themselves before a baby in Bethlehem. It is for those who would deny themselves and take up their cross to follow Christ. It is for those who would sell all they have to follow Christ and find treasure in heaven. It is for the outcasts, the meek, the poor in spirit. Christ did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. He came to seek and save the lost. The shepherds may not have been the religious leaders or powerful political figures, but when the good news was announced to them, they dropped everything and worshipped the baby in Bethlehem.
2) What is the Good News?
The angel Gabriel said to Marry, “you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The angel proclaimed to the shepherds that unto them was born a Savior. This is the essence of the good news. This is the gospel. Jesus Christ is a perfect savior, and he came to save his people from their sins. From beginning to end, the Bible is the Christmas story. It is the story of God’s redemption of a sinful people for their good and his glory. The result of this saving word is given in the angels’ song of praise: “…and on earth peace among those on whom his favor rests.” The peace that the gospel provides comes in different forms. First and foremost, central to the good news is that it is an announcement of peace with God. Because of sin, peace with God is impossible. Sinful humans can only be God’s enemies, but the gospel makes the impossible possible. Jesus Christ took upon himself the righteous wrath of a holy God. He lived a perfect life and then exhausted in himself the punishment we deserved. I’m reminded of a song my dad used to sing:
“He paid a debt, he did not owe, I owed a debt I could not pay. I needed someone to wash my sins away, and now I sing a brand new song, amazing grace the whole day long. Christ Jesus paid the debt that I could never pay.”
When we repent of our sins and trust Christ alone for our salvation, then we have peace with God. Second, we have peace with one another. The apostle Paul says,
“Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life…” (Phil 3:14-16).
As followers of Christ we have no basis for resentment, unforgiveness or quarreling of any kind, for each of these things assume we are entitled to something. All we have is of grace. How can we breath hostility toward our brothers and sisters in Christ, when that very breath is evidence of God’s mercy toward us? How can we harbor unforgiveness and resentment in our hearts, when its very next beat is proof of God kindness towards us. No. We forgive because we have been forgiven; we are merciful because we were shown mercy; we are gracious because he is gracious to us; we pray for our enemies for even now he prays to the Father on our behalf. We should strive for peace because we understand the gospel of peace. Finally, we have peace in the midst of suffering. This world is full of pain. The recent events at Sandy Hook make this ever present reality even more real. Even in my own family I look around and see the suffering that comes in a fallen world. My dad’s brain tumor, my mom’s recurring cancer, and my brother and I having a rare disease on top of it (as if raising us wasn’t hard enough!). I think of my sisters, both dealing with sons afflicted with the same disease; one of them finding out her next boy will have it as well (that makes 2), and the other having to deal with an unforeseen situation where her son’s previous bone marrow transplant failed and he will receive another one in the next few days. No one knows what to expect. These are just a few stories of sorrow in a world in which no corner is unaffected by tragedy, pain, sadness, sickness or suffering. But Christians remember the wonderful promise of Romans 8:28:
“For all things work together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose.”
3) What is the Result of the Good News?
We see this in the response of the Shepherds:
“And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”
From beginning to end, this story of God’s redemption of the curse of sin is to result in one thing: his own glory. When we truly understand this gospel, the true meaning of Christmas, we praise God for his grace. We praise him for his mercy, his love, his kindness, his provision, his salvation. We praise him for the true meaning of Christmas, Jesus Christ. Me we, this Christmas season, seek to do nothing less than praise and glorify our God who provided and secured our salvation through the sacrifice of his son, Jesus Christ, who was born so long ago in that small town, yet continues to call and draw his people to himself. Glory be to God for salvation, and this salvation has a name: Jesus Christ. This is the true meaning of Christmas.