Christmas: Before and After on Steroids
DECEMBER 5, 2018
As you may know, I write this letter long before you read it. This is October and you’ll receive it in December. So this old Scrooge has to do Christmas in October.
I also have to record a week of Christmas programs for the daily Key Life program this week. So I actually have to do Christmas twice. Come to think about it, make that three times. Last week Pete and I recorded a Friday Q & A program for the Christmas season. So by the time you read this letter, I will have done three Christmases…and you haven’t even done one yet.
If Jesus really loved me, I wouldn’t have to do this.
Okay, now that I feel better, let’s talk about Christmas.
I realized something new or at least a new way of looking at Christmas. It may have been the Holy Spirit; but then, it could have been indigestion. To make sure, you’ll have to get out your Bible and do some checking on your own. Not a bad thing, actually.
Christmas is an event. The first Christmas happened in time and space. It’s not a nice story about a baby, shepherds and angels. It’s a fact. God really came and—to keep from scaring us to death—he came as a baby. He loved us that much. John says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (That’s true. If you say it too much, though, you’ll just get bored and stifle a yawn.) But he continues, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:1, 14, 16-17). If you yawn in the face of that message, there’s something wrong with you! The incarnation was the most important event in human history…and it was designed to astonish us.
Not only is Christmas an event, Christmas celebrations are events too. They remind us of and call us to rejoice over the first event. So we celebrate the birth of Jesus every Christmas. (Or if you’re me, you do a sort of time warp and celebrate it four times, three before and one during.)
Frankly, we’re missing something here. While Christmas is an event and every Christmas after the first event celebrates it, it is far more than that. Christmas is a demarcation between the way things once were and how they are now. Everything has changed! Just as there is a “before” and “after” with the printing press, the world wars and the advent of social media, there is a “before” and “after” with Christmas. In fact, compared to all other events, the event of Christmas is “before and after” on steroids. It dwarfs everything else. There is now “BC” or “AC.” That would be “before Christmas” and “after Christmas.”
The time before Christmas was one of confusion and questions. Is there a God (Job 23:8-9)? If there is, what is he like (Isaiah 55:8-9)? Is he a monster demanding “the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul” (Micah 6:7)? Is he angry (Psalm 38:1-2)? Has he rejected us (Psalm 60:1)? Does he care (Psalm 13:1)? Does he love (Psalm 77:7-8)? And does he love me (Psalm 86:5-6)?
The time after Christmas is one of answers so unbelievable, so amazing and so wonderful that we can hardly take it in. Only after Christmas can the promise be shouted from the rooftops: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).
I’m a Bible teacher, not an evangelist. But whenever there’s a text that teaches about salvation, I always pause in the broadcast or sermon and talk about salvation and what God has done. I always say on those occasions, “From now on, you can never say, ‘Nobody told me.’ I just told you!” God says the same thing to a lost world, “I have told you about my love, my nature and my invitation. After Christmas, you can never say, ‘Nobody told me.’”
But there is more. Before Christmas human nature (it’s in our DNA) strives to please God. The Psalmist said that only fools think there is no God (Psalm 14:1). Normal people know. And normal people wonder what that God requires of them. That leads to some really weird and crazy religious stuff (hair shirts, living in a wilderness cave, self-flagellation, etc.) But aside from that, the world’s list is long with its political and cultural correct way of thinking, speaking and acting. Add to that the list of ways to please God we find in the Bible…and the demand is nothing less than crushing. The laws are many, the obligations impossibly demanding, and the bar of holiness incredibly high. In fact, the story of the Old Testament (along with a smell of hope and the truth of God’s nature) is, by and large, one of failure, violation and rebellion. The Old Testament (before Christmas) is a story of a stiff-necked people who have failed to live up to what a holy God requires. Nobody can please God yet everybody tries. That impossible task leads to faking it (blind self-righteousness), lying to ourselves (pretending to be something we’re not so we can sleep at night), or simply giving up (becoming one of the “nones” and walking away).
After Christmas the message is amazing. God no longer needs to be pleased. Well, that’s not true, but the angels got it when they said, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14). He’s pleased because of what he has done and not because of what we’ve done. The baby born in the stable grew up and did what we couldn’t do. He pleased God totally and absolutely, and then died on the cross giving a sufficient and finished sacrifice for all those many areas where we failed to please God. Not only that, God imputed (put into our account) all the ways that Jesus really pleased God. It’s not us and what we do; it’s him and what he has already done. The message is that God is completely pleased with his own (that would be us) because of Christmas.
One other “before and after.” Before Christmas there was no hope in the world…after Christmas there is hope for a world that has no answers by itself. The Psalmist asks, “Why do the nations rage?” The answer is that they have taken counsel “against the Lord” (Psalm 2:1-2). We are still asking essentially the same question: Why all the hatred, division, anger, condemnation, guilt, shame and violence? That Psalm is a Messianic Psalm prophesying when Messiah will come at Christmas: “You are my Son; today I have begotten you” (Psalm 2:7). The Psalmist says, “He who sits in the heavens laughs” and it is the laughter of derision (Psalm 2:4). But that was before. Now as we live in the after we know that the laughter is more than that. It is a free, joyous and redeeming laughter that spills over into a dark and sinful world.
We had a very unusual event at Key Life last week. On Thursday, Cathy called me and said, “If you want a good sermon illustration, come downstairs to the lobby.” What I saw was crazy. There was a bird (maybe a blue jay) throwing herself against our glass door, trying to perch, over and over again. (Cindy decided the bird was a “she” because she was a dull gray when the males in the species are more colorful.) The bird threw herself against the glass, couldn’t get a perch, flew back to the railing and rested, and then the whole thing started over again. This had been going on all morning since very early. (We even watched from less than an inch away at the door…but that made no difference, whatever her goal was.)
On Friday that same bird was still throwing herself against the glass and trying to perch on our door. And when we had our staff meeting this morning (we meet in the lobby), three days later, that bird was still there banging against the door (she had evidently been doing it all weekend). After a while, John, our IT guy, got up, opened the door and loudly stomped, chasing the bird away…only to return. (Eventually we covered the glass panes with paper and that helped…somewhat.)
During the staff meeting, as I watched that bird trying to do the impossible, I thought, If I were a bird, I would tell her to give up, that it was never going to work. And then I would feed her and try to offer her some comfort and relief. That is, if I were a bird.
Then I thought about Christmas when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth.” God, as it were, became a bird. Everything is different after Christmas. It’s not a message of rules, condemnation or challenge. It’s the message that God isn’t angry with anybody who runs to—as the Psalmist puts it, “God’s anointed”—even Jesus.
The world was a sour, dark and frightening place before Christmas. Our world is potentially filled with hope, life, love and redemption after Christmas.
So this Christmas, wish everybody you know “Merry Christmas!” And then, if they will listen, tell them why it’s merry.
He asked me to tell you.
Read more from Steve here.