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The Meaning of Christmas, then and now

The Meaning of Christmas, then and now

Sunday, December 2 marked the beginning of Advent, a season of preparation and reflection before Christmas Day. Christians around the globe have celebrated Advent for at least 500 years. Why is that? A few years ago the Jimmy Kimmel Show asked some kids on the streets of Los Angeles to explain the Christmas story. Their answers are captured in a video posted on YouTube called “Kids Tell the Story of Christmas” (dated Dec. 9, 2016). Their responses are varied: some children endearingly recount the events surrounding Jesus’s birth, while others disjointedly mention, “Jack the Skeleton Guy” and Santa.

The video reminded me there is no uniform narrative in American culture regarding the meaning of Advent and Christmas. However, when it comes to practicing Christians, it’s crucial to ask, “What’s the meaning of Christmas? Why is it important? And does it make a difference in our lives and the world today, beyond spending unseemly amounts of money on presents, trees, decorations, and cards?”

I suggest we find some answers in the gospel of John, chapter one. This is a classic Advent text that explains the meaning of Christmas. It starts this way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1,14).

This magnificent passage teaches us two important concepts about Jesus. First, Jesus is God: the eternal co-creator. Jesus Christ is God because he was already present with God the Father at creation. The Word, the Son of God, has always existed—he has no beginning and no end. What’s more, Jesus is God because he is a co-creator with God. All things were created through him, including you and me. That means you are precious because God made you! You’re not junk, you’re not an accident, you’re not a random collection of cells. You are a precious being made in God’s image!

Second, we learn in John 1 that Jesus is God’s living, breathing and embodied love-letter to humanity. God sent Jesus to show us that he cares deeply for both human beings and all of creation. The incarnation, that is, the second member of the Holy Trinity taking on human nature, shows us how much God cares for us, and longs to be in a relationship with us. God pursued us, came to us, reached out to us. He initiated contact with us, even though humans are filled with sin, brokenness, darkness, selfishness, and resentment.

Now, let’s contrast the incarnation of God with our Internet and social media-driven age, which can dilute or thin out authentic communication. Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and dating apps like Tinder, Bumble and Hinge, tend to turn communication into commodification (aka, a product). Tech experts Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms wrote a fascinating book called New Power: How Power Works in our Hyperconnected World. They assert, “Far from the organic free-roaming paradise the early internet pioneers imagined, there is a growing sense that we are living in a world of participation farms, where a small number of big platforms have fenced, and harvest for their own gain, the daily activities of billions.”

In contrast, the arrival of God’s Word, Jesus Christ, shows us God cares for us unconditionally. God has no ulterior motive. He’s not trying to harvest our information for profit. John 1 teaches us that Jesus is God’s living, breathing and embodied love-letter to humanity. If we don’t understand this, we don’t understand the meaning of Advent or Christmas.

But that doesn’t have to be. John 1:12 makes this declaration: “to all who did receive him [Jesus], to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” In the original language, the word “receive” means “toactively receive something, to accept with initiative.” And the word “believe” means more than intellectually agreeing to certain propositions in the Bible. It means wholesale surrender and trust.

That reminds me of “La Vida,” an expedition I took in college as part of our liberal arts curriculum, where we hiked through the Adirondack mountains of New York for two weeks. Before our team departed, we spent a few days preparing by engaging in trust building exercises. One of them was the trust-fall. One person would stand on a tree stump. Then two columns of four people would form a bed of hands behind him/her. Then the person standing on the stump would countdown: “3, 2, 1… I’m falling” and fall backward, trusting the eight teammates to catch him/her. Faith is just like that: it’s a trust fall. You totally surrender, fall backward and believe God will catch you.

Ultimately then, the good news of Christmas is this: those who believe in Jesus Christ become children of God.Some people read John 1 and ask, “Aren’t all humans children of God? New Testament Scholar Leon Morris makes this distinction: “God’s attitude to all people is that of a Father. All are his sons in the sense that he made them and that he provides for them. But people are his sons in the full sense only as they respond to what he does for them in Christ. When they receive the Word they are born again into the heavenly family. It is only in this way that they are really God’s ‘children.’”

Ponder the beauty of that. Those who believe in Jesus Christ become children of God. That’s why the Son of God came. So that you and I, through faith in the name and character of Jesus Christ, would be given a new nature, and join a new family. Jesus washes us clean of all failure, shame, pride, and anger. He came to make us new. That is the Christians observe Advent and celebrate Christmas.

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Pastor Paul Hoffman