Christmas: a Message and a Meeting, a Divine-Human Encounter

One part of the Christmas narrative in the New Testament that believers usually find sad and disturbing is the fact that the inn had “no room” for Mary and Joseph, so the innkeeper and his guests missed the opportunity to witness the birth of baby Jesus. Who could have known, who would have believed, that the greatest event in human history was about to take place in a stable? Yes, the “wise men from the East” who had followed a special star knew the prophecy that a King was to be born in the town of “Bethlehem of Judea,” the city of David, the greatest King in Israel’s history. However, think how surprised they were to find the One who was born to be “KING OF ALL KINGS,” the PROMISED MESSIAH, lying in a manger. Yes, God’s ways are “beyond our ways.” Angels had appeared to a few ordinary shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks by night,” telling them that a “Savior, who is Christ the Lord” was going to be born that night in Bethlehem and that they were to go there to find the infant Christ and “worship him.” They were surely amazed to discover that the only other people present to “adore him” were three “wise men” who had come bearing gifts. No one else in Bethlehem, including all those who had made the journey there to “pay their taxes” like Mary and Joseph, even knew the Christ-event had taken place. They missed Christmas!

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I have found myself thinking about the many people in today’s world who, for various reasons, will also miss Christmas. Many simply have “no room” for Jesus in their lives. They will celebrate Christmas, but without Christ. Then there are those who have been brought into the orbit of the Christian community, many who are theologians, who are still searching for the “real Jesus.” Therefore, there is really “no room” in their lives either for the Jesus of the gospels. There is “no room” in their system of belief for the Jesus of the “virgin birth” or the “virgin life” (i.e. the Jesus who was “without sin”), the Jesus who worked wonders, who had power over sin, suffering, and death, or the Jesus who died as the Lamb of God to “take away the sin of the world.” This Jesus pushed the end from his grave and conquered sin, suffering, and death. Of course, there are also multitudes of people who give little or no thought to the real reason for the season. For them, Christmas is simply one of many annual “holidays” promoted by stores who have removed nativity scenes from their decorations and no longer play Christmas carols through their sound systems. Most stores only play secular songs that may be singable but are far from sacred. Why have all traditional reminders of the true Christmas story been removed from the very season that was established to celebrate the birth of Jesus? Because those who belong to different communities of faith might be offended. These people are indifferent to Christianity at best or hostile at worst, which is why stores avoid incorporating manger scenes in their Christmas displays and playing Christian hymns – it might hurt business. Greed is the bottom line! The profit motive has replaced prophecy! The cash registers jingle to the sound of “jingle bells” while merchants think to themselves quietly “what a friend we have in Jesus.”  

Of course, there are many different “Jesuses” out there on the faith-market today, including the Jesus of the cults, as well  as those who have a Jesus in mind who is different from the “Jesus of the gospels” (i.e. the scholars and historians who are still searching for the “real Jesus” since the Jesus we meet in the gospels and epistles of the New Testament does not meet with their full approval). However, most Christians believe there is only one “real Jesus,” and that is the Jesus we are introduced to by the apostles (the “eyewitnesses”) who believed him to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 and 1 John 1:1-3) and the resurrected Lord who now sits on the throne in heaven as the object of heaven’s worship (Revelation 1:17-19, 4:1-2, 8-11, 7:9-17). There are millions of believers around the world today who have accepted the testimony of the authors of the gospels and the epistles as authoritative and trustworthy, forever true and valid for all time. Not because they are uneducated and naive as some critics and skeptics suggest, but because “the Spirit hears witness with their spirit” that the Jesus who transformed their lives and the apostles’ lives is the One they believed him to be and who he himself claimed to be.

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Pause now and meditate on some of the claims of Jesus, such as the following:

  • I am the resurrection and the life
  • I am the Bread of life, the Living Bread who came down from heaven.
  • I am the way, the truth, and the life
  • Before Abraham was, I am
  • I and the Father are one; those who have seen me have seen the Father
  • No one comes to the Father but by me; do you believed this?

Well, do you? Do you believe the historical Jesus was (IS) both man and God? Fully man and fully God, not part-man and part-God, but the One man in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell bodily” (Colossians 1:19 and 2:9)?  Do you believe “Jesus of Nazareth,” the “Man of Galilee,” the One who was “crucified, dead and buried” as we say in the Apostles’ Creed, was (IS) the resurrected Christ, the Lord of glory (the Second Person of the Godhead, the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit)? Do you believe in the Jesus who was not conceived as you and I were, but once again as we say in the Apostles’ Creed “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary?”  For what it’s worth, I do not understand how anyone who claims he or she is still searching for “the real Jesus” can stand up in a gathering of believers and recite the Apostles’ Creed without a conscious sense of hypocrisy.

When we say what we believe in during the classic creeds of Christ’s Church, we are saying we believe “God the Father Almighty” has been most fully revealed to us in “Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.” We are also confessing our belief in the Holy Spirit, who was bestowed on the Church, given to believers, to lead us into an understanding of the truth God has made known to us, his being and his nature (revealed in both history and Christian experience) – One in essence, but revealed in three persons ( “tri-unity”, the real meaning of Trinity). As I have said previously, language has limitations and no language is adequate to explain the inexplicable or to interpret fully what we mean when we simply use the word “GOD,” much less terms such as “Incarnation” and “Holy Trinity.” Even the familiar term “person” gives us difficult problems because it suggests independent, separate, and individual existence. This definition does not apply to God, who “is spirit.” However, God isn’t impersonal. The true and living God is far more personal than we are, in the truest sense of the word. When we are speaking of a personal God, we are referring to God’s essence, actually God in three persons, yet One in his essential being – existing eternally in the three persons we know as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” yet One in his triune nature. Our little minds cannot comprehend the incomprehensible. If they could, our God would be too small!

I am reminded of an experience shared by one of the former Presidents of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Dr. Albert Wynn, who told of a student who approached him between classes one day saying “Dr. Wynn, I am having trouble understanding the Trinity. I have an hour before my next class, so would you please explain the Trinity?” After spending an hour with that student in deep theological conversation about the Triune God, he asked him if he was still confused. The student said, “yes, but on a much deeper level.” Well, I guess that is the most I can hope for in this blog. There are many ways of looking at the Trinity, of talking about the Father-heart of God, about the mystery of the incarnation (the Eternal Christ in human form), and the Person and work of the Holy Spirit (the Third Person of the Godhead). But none of our explanations, illustrations, or interpretations will fully satisfy. Nevertheless, unfettered by the limitations of our human reason, we can say we do believe because the Holy Spirit has witnessed to our spirit that what we confess in our creeds is true.

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Let us remember that we have also been called to let others know that the Christmas story is not only a message BUT ALSO A MEETING. At least it can be and should be a transforming encounter with the one true and living God who has made himself known to us in the person of the historical Jesus, who in his teaching ministry revealed to us that God is not somewhere “out there” but rather “down here” (i.e. a “down-to-earth” God) and is not only transcendent (above us and beyond us) but also immanent, our Emmanuel (i.e. God with us). In his essential nature God is three in one, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” being of the same substance, equal in power and glory, each possessing all of the attributes of Deity – holy, righteous, loving, gracious, forgiving, just, merciful, and seeking to make all of us his sons and daughters, adopted into his forever family, heirs of Christ, with the assurance that “nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Rejoice, and again I say, rejoice! For we Christians have something to sing about: our faith set to music such as “Good tidings of great joy” during the Christmas season.

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