The sense you get from talking to most folks is that this is a season of joy. And of course for many, it is. Amidst all of the stress and the crunch and the rush, there is an undercurrent of I love spending this time with my family or, I love presents-giving and receiving them! or, Christmas Eve is my favorite church service all year or, what makes the Christmas spirit brighter than Fireball and a Backwoods cigar? There are a lot of things to be happy about this time of year.
But then, we know that not everyone is enjoying all of these things, don't we? Perhaps you who are reading this aren't enjoying all of these things, or any of them. It could be that this time of year is painful for you because of financial difficulties, a break-up, or the loss of a loved one. Or perhaps you simply resonate with the words of H.W. Longfellow,
And in despair I bowed my headLongfellow wrote those words in the midst of the Civil War. A nation had split in two and was fighting against itself. Peace on earth seemed a far-fetched idea. For many of us enjoying the warmth of family, Christmas cookies, happy carols, or excitement over a baby being born two millenia ago may seem equally far-fetched. But maybe the pain of Christmas, the aching of the season, if you will, is a good thing. I think it can be. For through this aching at the un-met-ness of our expectations, we may be pointed toward this fact: we need to find our joy somewhere else. We need something more solid than this.
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
The happiness of Christmas isn't meant to simply be caught up in the passing joy that family can bring. Copious numbers of gifts leave us flat. The Christmas spirit does not consist of mere food and drink. And the story of Jesus the Christ isn't about a quaint little family in a barn. We need things more deep, more firm, more real. This is chief among them:
John 1:1-3, 14, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made...And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth."
The thing of most importance at Christmas is the birth of Jesus: but what exactly was the birth of Jesus? The birth of an ordinary child who grew to be an extraordinary man? A fairy tale made up for and swallowed by those of simple mind? I don't think so.
What we see in these opening words of the Gospel according to John is what theologians refer to as The Incarnation. The coming of God the Son, the second Member of the Trinity, into this world and clothing Himself in human flesh. He who is Himself God, who has dwelt forever with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, He who is the Word through whom God spoke all creation into existence: He became a man. He added to His true divinity a true humanity. Ponder with me what a ludicrous idea this is. That He who spun galaxies into existence would take up residence inside of a uterus. That He who commanded the worship of the angels would be laid where ox and ass are feeding, as the old hymn puts it. Who would write such a story? Who would choose such a method of saving sinners? Could God the Father not have sent a mere man, or an angel, or some other form of emissary to bring to us His salvation?
But our thoughts are not His thoughts, and our ways are not His ways. In times past God spoke in many ways, but in these days He has spoken to us definitively: in His Son, who is the radiance of the glory of God. In the past there was a partial revelation of God, but in Jesus we see the fullness of God dwelling in a human body. (Isaiah 55:8, Hebrews 1:1-3, Colossians 1:19-20)
The Jewish people were waiting for a Messiah, the long awaited one to come and save Israel. They mourned under the yoke of oppressive foreign power after oppressive foreign power. Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome. They were looking for someone to restore their kingdom, to sit on David's throne. What many failed to realize is that the true oppression, the true enemy, lay within their own breast: a sinful heart at enmity with God. And there was only One fit to conquer such an enemy: One who would be God, and thus able to pay for all men's sins. However, this One must also be a man, qualified to live the perfect, sinless life that each of us owes to God, who would be tempted in every way we are tempted, who resisted all such temptation, and who could stand in our place. Who could die in our place. You see, God the Son came down to earth not merely to take on flesh and be born as a baby. He did not come merely to live as a man, to "see what it's like". He came to die for our sins. It is in Him, and through Him, and only in Him and through Him, that God was reconciling the world to Himself. (2 Corinthians 5:19, Hebrews 4:15, 1 Timothy 2:5-6)
And here is the kicker with this sort of peace, peace with God: it isn't transient. People come and go. They die, they leave, or sometimes we just drift apart, especially in a mobile society like we live in today. Material gifts are often enjoyed for only a short period, and none will mean anything to us when we are laid under. Fairly tales about Santa and Rudolph, or Frosty and his pipe bring nothing but momentary distraction from the reality of this world. Even Bible stories, if separated from their context and significance, can seem to be without meaning.
But the Good News of the Word taking flesh, of a Savior born in Bethlehem, of God bringing peace to men: this is the kind of truth which, if embraced, will radically alter our outlooks, our lives, and our eternity. Because Jesus has come, and He has crushed death to death by experiencing death-and rising again. Death now has an expiration date, because the Lord of Life has mastered it. And all who place their faith in Him will one day enter His everlasting Kingdom, where peace will not only be an internal reality, something we enjoy with God, but an external reality. There will truly be peace on earth, because of the Savior who was born in Bethlehem. This is Good news. This is a Solid Joy on which we can bank our lives and our souls. This why Longfellow could not stay in despair:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:Amen. Merry Christmas.
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”