Steve’s Letter – December 2014
DECEMBER 3, 2014
I’m sitting here thinking about Christmas and it’s only October. As you know, I have to write these letters to you a long time before you get them. And I’m a Scrooge at Christmas (even though I look like Santa Claus). I was thinking (and in fact told him) that, if God really loved me, I wouldn’t have to do Christmas stuff…twice.
That’s when I had an attack of sanity. Maybe God knows me better than I know myself and because he likes me, he knows he has to prepare my heart a good deal in advance of Christmas or I would become insufferable and ruin it for everybody else when Christmas gets here. Maybe my irritation at all the Christmas stuff is sin and God—who is always gracious and never angry at me—is kind enough to allow me to repent before I sin.
(Now that’s an interesting concept, repenting before one sins. If you repent a lot when you haven’t sinned, it means you have a sort of “sin bank account” and you can sin whenever you want. Uh…Jesus just told me that dog won’t hunt. I was just saying…)
Speaking of preparation, did you know that some Reformed churches had a pre-Communion service before Communion Sunday? It was preparation. The divines thought that if you went to communion without thinking about it and preparing for it, you would miss the gift that God had given his people.
That, by the way, is so God.
God hardly ever acts in a vacuum.
He almost always prepares before he acts, before he leads and before he calls us. The writer of Hebrews, before he expounds on the profound truths surrounding Christ, opens with these words: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Hebrews 1:1-2).
If you like to read mystery novels—and I do—you know that a good mystery writer puts hints throughout the story pointing to the bad guy. So when you get to the end of the novel and you know the whole story, you can say, “Oh yes. I should have known.”
Christmas is like that.
God prepared everything beforehand. He brought the Romans, the Greeks and the Jews together, preparing their histories, so that when Christ was born, he was born at precisely the right moment. If Jesus had been born just sixty years before or after, you would have never known his name.
God prepared thought forms so that when Jesus was born everybody would understand. For instance, John says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14). The Greek word for “word” was one with which both Jews and Greeks were familiar. The Jews associated it with the “creative wisdom” of God and the Greeks with their philosophy as the glue that held the world together. The Romans (with their military prowess) conquered the entire Western World, creating a common coinage, a common language, and a road system that made the spread of the story of Jesus possible. Even the idea of sacrifice had been a part of every culture in the entire world—“without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22)—developed completely apart from each culture. Add to that the fact that prophecies were quite clear about the coming Messiah and they were spoken hundreds of years before Jesus was born.
You begin to see a pattern. Christmas didn’t just happen.
God prepared for Christmas from the very beginning, putting the pieces of the puzzle together very slowly, carefully and intentionally so that when it came together, we would stand up and sing “The Hallelujah Chorus.”
So? Let me tell you. Knowing how God worked in preparing for the single most important event in all of human history suggests that it’s the way God works everywhere in general and the way he works in our lives in particular. That’s why it’s important to know our “stories.” In them, we find God’s work and preparation in our lives from the day we were born. Today didn’t just happen. Today is the result of the days that have gone on before—the people we’ve known, the experiences (both good and bad) we’ve had, the joys we’ve encountered and the tears we’ve shed. And more important than preparation is the awareness that every bit of that was overseen by a sovereign and good God who is good all the time even when it doesn’t feel that way. It means our lives have meaning and purpose. It means we are valuable and loved. “All things” really do “work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
You can trust him because he prepared for you to be his own and to trust him.
That’s the way God works.
There is one other thing that this old Scrooge thought while considering Christmas. When God acted, he confirmed his action. Angels are everywhere in the Christmas texts. Elizabeth was pregnant with John when she was too old to get pregnant…way too old. Wise men from other cultures showed when there was no reason for them to have left their own countries. There was the star in the east and even Herod knew that something was up. What was going on? God was saying, “It’s me! It’s really me!”
That’s why there’s so much joy.
While I was working on this, a physician friend of mine called and told me he no longer believed. “Well,” he said, “I do believe, but sometimes I can’t get it into my heart.” “Of course you have trouble believing,” I told him. “That’s why Christ died for you. He died for your unbelief too.” And then I said to him, “If you don’t believe, why in the world did you call me? Why are you still struggling? Where do you think you got this stuff that haunts you if it weren’t true? This is all too weird to make up and you wouldn’t have done it on your own.” He laughed and said, “I hadn’t thought about that.”
What was I saying to him? Just what I said to you. God brought you to this point and prepared it all for you just the way he prepared for Christmas. And not only that, he confirmed it in your heart.
We interviewed my friend, Eric Metaxas, this afternoon on our talk show about his new book, Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life. That’s a great book. Eric said in the interview (and in the book) that the English word “miracle” comes from a Latin word referring to Greek words for “sign.” In other words, miracles aren’t magic tricks God does for our entertainment. Instead, they are “signs” pointing to and confirming God’s action and love.
It’s God’s way to prepare. It’s also his way to confirm.
Christmas is a time of warm feelings. It’s about as close as pagans get to God and the truth. I often picture a woman putting the Christmas decorations away after Christmas. She pauses for a moment and thinks, What was that all about? There was something there and I just don’t know what it was. I wish I could tell her, “It was him. He came and wants you to know him, to let him forgive you, to let him love you. That feeling you don’t understand is from him. For God’s sake, lady, don’t miss it.”
But for those of us who know him, his confirmation is everywhere. There is confirmation in the crazy hope that those who died and won’t be with us this Christmas are celebrating a better Christmas in a better place. There is confirmation in the “lights” that come on at the Christmas service when we’re reminded that it isn’t a story, but a space/time historical event. The stable was real, the shepherds didn’t make it up, and the angels really did make the announcement of his birth. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given” (Isaiah 9:6) is reflected in the tears that come, for no reason, as we sing the carols and decorate the tree. It is reflected in the shared self-confirming knowledge Christians have that God is there, he is kind and he doesn’t just love but defines himself as love. It is the present experience of knowing that we are forgiven, we are valuable, and we are acceptable because Jesus made us acceptable and told us so.
Do you remember the guys on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24)? After the resurrection, they were walking on the road to Jerusalem…when this stranger showed. (I believe, by the way, that was Jesus’ sense of humor.) The stranger, of course, was Jesus. In his kind of supernatural disguise, he taught the Scriptures that referred to himself. Then it hit them. It was Jesus. They said (Luke 24:32), “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” The “burning heart” was Jesus saying, “It’s me! It’s really me!”
So this Scrooge sat down and wrote to you about Christmas…irritated that he had to go through Christmas twice. But while I was writing to you, something happened. It dawned on me that it is all true. I got something not altogether dissimilar to the “Christmas Spirit.”
If you say I told you that, I’ll say you lied.
But he did tell me to remind you.