There are lots of things in the Bible that cause me to stop and wonder. There are lots of things I don’t understand, and there are more things that I understand, but then don’t know how to handle. And here is one of them. When the angels announce the birth of Jesus they give the shepherds a sign. Here’s the sign—a baby, wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger. Now, once we get past the romanticism of our Renaissance painting of the nativity scene, you have to wonder, what kind of sign is that? A baby? There are lots of babies! Wrapped in cloth? Everybody born in this time was wrapped like this. Lying in a manger? Okay—this one may have been a little unique, but maybe not as unique as we might think. The shepherds were working men who made their living in livestock, and they would have been comfortable in stables, around animals. I am sure, while working, either the shepherds or one of their wives could have placed a baby in a manger. After all, you can’t hold a baby 24 hours a day, and let’s face it— a manger is the perfect size to hold a baby. So what is the sign? Is it that things looked pretty normal? No, the sign is Jesus Himself. In our confused efforts to find meaning in every object of the story, we miss the obvious. The sign is Jesus. The sign isn’t those things around the baby or the circumstance of the baby’s birth. The baby is the sign. Jesus Himself is the message. . . “In the beginning was the WORD. . . and the WORD became flesh.” Late in His ministry, Jesus challenged His listeners because they wanted to see a sign. Jesus said the only sign this generation would get would be the sign of Jonah. And what sign was that? It was the sign of a prophet preaching, calling a city to immediate repentance in the face of coming judgment. The only sign was Jonah preaching, and now the only sign is Jesus. Let’s face it, if the sign of God in human form isn’t going to convince you, what will? Will it be lightening and thunder, will it be the Tennessee River running backwards? What? God has come to our world. Jesus is here. He is the only sign. He is all that we need.
Every Christmas we find it remarkable that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Most of us believe Jesus would have made a bigger impact in Jerusalem or Rome. But Jerusalem and Rome were big cities, crowded with commerce and busy with government affairs. Like New York or Washington, important people were busy doing important things in Jerusalem and Rome. By contrast, Bethlehem was a quiet, nondescript village of shepherds and farmers. And maybe that’s why God chose to have Jesus born there, in a quiet, off-the-beaten-path place. Perhaps God, just to make a point, ignores all the so-called centers of power and bypasses all the so-called influences of self importance. Maybe God chose to rearrange the geography of the world a little by declaring on this Christmas day that Bethlehem—not Jerusalem and not Rome—was the most important place in the world. According to Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian church, God has chosen the weak things to overcome the strong—even the things that are sent to accomplish His will. So He chose Bethlehem to be the little town that overwhelmed Jerusalem. And it is the same with us. God chooses the weak places in our lives—the overlooked and unimportant places—to make Himself known to us. Those are the places in our lives that become important only because God is there. So look in the last place you would expect to find God in your life. If Bethlehem is any example, that will be the first place He chooses.
Sometimes people think I don’t like Christmas and in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. I love Christmas. I love the story, I love the characters, I love the message of hope – of God coming to our world. What I don’t like is what the world has done to Christmas. I don’t like what the church has allowed the world to do with our holy day. . .that’s right, Christmas is a holy day NOT a holiday. . .and that’s just the first of my gripes. I resent our world drowning out our time of worship with their shouts of sales and bargains. I am tired of being told that if I don’t spend a lot of money during Christmas the United States won’t come out of its economic downturn. I get angry when the world tells me that to show my wife I really love her, I have to spend myself into near bankruptcy. Frankly, if you were to ask my wife what she wants for Christmas she would probably say for me to put my dishes in the dishwasher and take out the garbage without being asked. After thirty years of living with me, her expectations just aren’t that high. I am frustrated the church allows the world to dictate how we commemorate the birth of Christ. Instead of elaborate programs and pageants, we would best honor Christ by remembering there are still children with no room for them in the world. “But Mike, Christmas is about families”. . .No, it’s not. “But Mike, Christmas is about giving gifts to people you love”. . .No, it’s not. Christmas is about the birth of Jesus – Immanuel, God with us. Christmas is about how dark the world is without the Light of Christ and how hopeless we would be if God had not come in Christ to rescue us. And I guess that is why we are so eager to find something to distract us from the cold setting of Christmas. Sitting in the dark is hard. Thinking about the down side of what would have happened if Jesus had not come is harder still. It’s easier to go to the mall. Maybe, but it’s not as deep and rich, and well. . .as transforming as sitting in the dark and lighting one candle. Watch as the candle flame catches and stretches long into the darkness and see how fast the darkness runs. Remember, 2000 years ago, God Himself lit a little candle in Bethlehem and darkness has been running ever since. And that is why I love Christmas.
I was a little late getting the Christmas tree up this year. OK, I was a lot late. In fact, as I write this blog, the tree waits for me to complete the finishing touches. I think, however, I am due a little compassion and understanding. I was sick over Thanksgiving and I always put the tree up on “Black Friday” while Jeannie goes shopping. So, I have been trying to catch up ever since. . .and today, I have about caught up. But I noticed something else.
When I had the tree in place and the lights came on (having Christmas tree lights come on when you first plug them in is enough to renew your faith in God!) then it started to feel like Christmas. The green tree, the flashing lights, the happy chaos of a house in the middle of being decorated was like a sign to me—get ready. . .Christmas is coming.
The symbol of the tree reminded me of the greater Christmas story. Suddenly, in the blinking of the lights I went from being frustrated that I was so far behind to a slow smile of remembering Christmas is getting closer and that means family and food—and joy. In our fast paced digital world we forget the power of symbols—visual cues, gentle reminders that there is more to our lives than rushing to the next thing. The blinking lights remind me the Light of the world has come to our dark world. The evergreen won’t let me forget there is always hope and the cross on the horizon still proclaims a love that will never give up.