God Adapts to Us
DECEMBER 6, 2023
It’s hard to celebrate Christmas in Florida.
We never have a white Christmas, sleighs, and skiing. We can’t sing “Winter Wonderland,” “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm,” or “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” Those songs don’t work in Florida. It’s not going to snow or even be cold. And if Santa were smart, his red suit would be shorts. But then, Florida’s weather is probably not different from the weather on that first Christmas. They don’t get a lot of snow in Bethlehem. Not only that, scholars think that Jesus’ actual birthday wasn’t in December at all, but in September or maybe in April. So, Mary and Joseph didn’t have a white Christmas, either.
Wait, I misspoke. It snowed once in Florida. It snowed in Miami because a little girl—our daughter, Jennifer—prayed and had all the little girls in her Sunday school class join her. We recently moved there from New England, and Jennifer missed the snow. I tried to explain why it didn’t snow in Florida, e.g., it would hurt the farmers, destroy the tourist business, etc. Jennifer said that she didn’t care and would ask, anyway. And, for the first and last time, it snowed in Miami. I think God said, “I know about the farmers, but I like that little girl and her friends. Angels, bring on the snow!” God, as it were, adapted to a little girl simply because he liked her. That’s so like God.
While I miss the snow and all the white Christmas traditions, Floridians celebrate in our own way. There are Christmas parades with multiple flotillas of brightly-lit boats, Santa has a suntan, and a palm tree sort of works as a Christmas tree. We adapt.
By the way, we celebrate Christmas in December because it was already a Pagan holiday. It was the day sun-worshipers celebrated the birth of the deity Sol Invictus, the birth of the “unconquerable sun.” Contrary to what some say, that isn’t a bad thing. The church took over the Pagan holiday as a statement of Christus Invictus. Jesus was victorious over the Pagans and their religion. The church adapted.
In Ethiopia, Christmas is celebrated on January 7 and includes a candlelit procession before the church service. In the Philippines, the Christmas service turns into a party where people feast and dance into the early hours of the morning. In Iceland, there are 13 Santas. In England, stockings are hung on bedposts instead of fireplace mantles. Christmas scenes often reflect the livestock and characters of the particular culture where the celebration takes place. Even the Gospel accounts are different, with different adaptations of the Christmas story. There are kings (the rich), shepherds (the poor), wise men (of various cultures), Simeon (an old man), and Mary and Joseph (barely out of their teens). Christ’s birth is made to fit all people in all places at all times. It’s adaptation.
And that adaptation started with God. It’s what Christmas is all about. How in the world could the infinite, sovereign, and big and scary God reveal himself and his love to the world? If he had revealed himself in all of his power and glory, it would have scared us to death. So, he adapted to the people he loved. God as a baby! That’s incredible and so like our God. Everybody loves babies, and nobody is frightened in a baby’s presence. Now that I think about it, adaptation should be included in theology books as one of God’s attributes.
Paul told the Philippians that Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” And, of course, John, in his theological presentation of the Christmas story, wrote, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . . full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
In Richard Selzer’s book Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, he describes a surgical procedure on a young woman whose tumor in her cheek required that he cut a nerve, leaving her mouth deformed. When she asked him if her mouth would always be deformed, he said it couldn’t be fixed. The woman’s husband in the room said, “I think it’s kind of cute.” Then he bent over to kiss his wife’s crooked mouth, twisting his own lips to accommodate to hers . . . to show that the kiss still worked. Selzer writes that it was a bold encounter with God. It was.
Everybody knows that God is “large and in charge,” as Pete Alwinson puts it. If God doesn’t scare you, you haven’t understood. That is a part of human DNA and the appropriate reaction to a “knowing” built into the human psyche. Those who deny that fact deny something very human and normal. According to the Psalmist (Psalm 14:1), it is the denial of a fool. R.C. Sproul, contrary to Freud, said quite accurately that those who deny God are abnormal, reflecting something like childhood trauma. Everybody, except fools and neurotics, knows that we don’t trifle with God. Because of that, throughout recorded history, human beings have worked to please the sovereign, creator God they knew was in control . . . and not happy. Some have even, to placate him, sacrificed their firstborn.
Then God came! No thunder and bolts of lightning (that would have surprised no one). No legions of armed angels coming to bring Justice to sinful human beings (down deep, we know, fear, and expect God’s Justice). What’s that I hear? The angels aren’t wielding swords but singing. There’s no thunder and lightning but a baby’s cry. “And you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
Christmas is an incredible, amazing, unbelievable, profound, exciting, and powerful revelation of a sovereign God who loves, forgives, and accepts his people. It is the world’s most unusual demonstration of adaptation. And that’s why there are Christmas parties for those who have understood. Parties are appropriate, celebrations are called for, and dancing and singing are the order of the day. It is God’s amazing adaptation to the people he loves.
But there is a sad note. So many have forgotten the reason for the celebration. So many have Christmas parties without knowing why; it is, in effect, a celebration about a celebration. So many have felt warm and fuzzy with Christmas thoughts but without any ultimate meaning. There is probably no other time when people are so open to what Christmas is all about. It’s about being forgiven, loved, and accepted and living forever. And so many don’t know that.
So, what do we do? Adaptation. That’s called witnessing, putting a name to the hope in every heart. And that requires adaptation. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:21-23, “To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” That adaptation. It’s taking our cue from God—identifying with other needy and flawed sinners and doing it with such honesty that they respond, “You, too?”
Merry Christmas, but don’t forget about them.
He asked me to remind you.