Advent is a time for us to return to what this season—and our lives—are to be about: worship. Not just for Advent, but for always.
Those wise men shouldn't be in your nativity scene. The reason why reveals three common problems with how we approach Scripture.
“Yes,” said Queen Lucy. “In our world too, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.”
These words from Narnian adventurer Lucy Pevensie in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle articulate well the irony and majesty of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Only the wisdom of the Creator and Lord of the universe could turn our notions of normal on their ear in such a profound way, revealing to us a manger whose “inside is bigger than its outside.” It seems he delights in astounding his creatures with his infinite ability to exceed and confound their expectations.
No doubt the news of Christ’s birth came as a jaw-dropping, thrill-inducing revelation to those shepherds so long ago: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). The very God whom Solomon had described as uncontainable, even by the heavens, confined himself to the womb of a woman? How could it be?
But, while the physical wonder of what God accomplished in the Incarnation is colossal in its display of power and wisdom, that is not even the point of the angel’s announcement to the shepherds—it is simply the paper on which an even more marvelous proclamation is embossed forever.
UNTO YOU IS BORN
If I put myself in the sandals of the shepherds, I cannot help but notice that there is a special message, a stunning declaration embedded in this announcement. It is “unto me” that a Savior has been born! Unto me? Surely there must be some mistake. Why would God go through all that trouble just for me? Surely there is some greater person for whom this announcement is meant. Did the angel take a wrong turn on his way to the king’s palace or the temple in Jerusalem?
I’m a nobody. How could this historic pronouncement be meant for me? Yet there the light is, and now the whole choir of angels is singing. It must be true!
And, indeed, it is true. For our sake, not only does the God of the universe wield kingdoms, topple obstacles, and overcome adversaries—he sacrifices his very best, his very dearest. God sent his only begotten Son into the world to die for little, unimportant, who’s-ever-heard-of-them individuals. As a result, whosoever believes in him will not perish but will have everlasting life.
It is “unto you” that a Savior was sent, that a baby was born, that the Christ was crucified.
A SAVIOR WHO IS CHRIST THE LORD
When most of us see a manger scene, our response to the reminder of what God became for us is limited to a placid, “Oh, isn’t the little baby Jesus sweet! How precious that Jesus was once an infant, so weak and helpless.” While it is appropriate to marvel at the smallness of the parcel into which God packed our Redeemer, let us not get the wrong idea about this child. He is Lord.
Paul tells us in Colossians 1:17 that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was “before all things,” and in him “all things hold together.” One of the greatest wonders of the Incarnation is that somehow the very baby that Mary held was at the same time holding her together, along with the rest of the universe.
The hand that rocks this cradle doesn’t rule the world—but the baby in the cradle does! The little finger that held hers was also holding the Roman Empire, guiding the Arctic Tern in its migration from Africa to Antarctica, and keeping Mars in its orbit around the Sun.
Just because Jesus became an infant human doesn’t mean he ever gave up being Lord. This is the clear implication of the angel’s announcement: “unto you is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Jesus Christ—the Alpha and Omega, the same yesterday and today and forever—ruled and sustained the universe from his cradle. No wonder the magi who would later come to see him would fall down and worship him—they knew they were in the presence of the Majesty, even when he was cloaked in familiarity.
LYING IN A MANGER
If we pretend we have never heard the story of the Incarnation, doubtless this is among the most shocking statements in all of the Bible. The fact that angels would herald the birth of the God-man is no great surprise—surely he deserved that and more. That others would come to worship him is also to be expected—certainly, the Christ is worthy and demanding of such reverence. But here is the rest of the royal birth announcement: “you will find the baby”—where?—“lying in a cattle trough” (Luke 2:12).
A cattle trough? As if the humiliation of becoming human and living among sinners was not enough! Surely he deserves to be born into one of the palaces he has sustained, or even just a nice, middle-class apartment.
But no. The Son of God was born into the world and had only a trough for his cradle.
What marvelous condescension we see in Christmas! Condescension to come at all, condescension to become a human, and condescension to live his life in abject poverty and rejection. Surely such a Savior is to be praised; such a Christ is to be followed.
How can we who take his name on ourselves as Christians and expect a life of lavender and rose petals? Surely to follow this Lord means following him in all his glorious and voluntary humiliation, suffering, and sacrifice for the glory of God.
The shepherds who heard the angels’ doxology responded by saying to one another, “Let us go … and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” What is your response? Do you want to look further into this matter of God becoming a man? Is your appetite whetted for more of this exalted Lord who humiliates himself for our sake?
Let’s hurry into his presence and beg for a greater glimpse of him this Christmas season.
Justin Huffman has pastored in the States for over 15 years, authored the “Daily Devotion” app (iTunes/Android) which now has over half a million downloads, and recently published a book with Day One: Grow: the Command to Ever-Expanding Joy. He has also written articles for For the Church, Servants of Grace, and Fathom Magazine. He blogs at justinhuffman.org.
GOD CREATED HOLIDAYS
Cultural celebrations are not man-made institutions. Like much of God’s creation, holidays can be—and have been—distorted for all sorts of less-than-holy purposes. But what if “Santa” really isn’t an anagram for “Satan”? What if we can we redeem this holiday season, and use it for God’s work?
Seen throughout the Old Testament, and most clearly in Leviticus 23, God commanded His people to pause several times each year, simply to feast and celebrate. Here are far-too-brief summaries of Old Testament Israel’s national holidays:
- The Festival of Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah) kicked off the Jewish New Year with the blast of a ram’s horn. God’s people gathered as one, as Israel kicked off each year with ten days of feasting, celebrating God, and ceasing work to rest in Him.
- The Day of Atonement was an annual reminder of Israel’s sin and God’s forgiveness. In a solemn service on the most important day of the Jewish year, one ram was killed as a symbol of appeasing God’s wrath, as another symbolized God’s removal of sin, being sent into the wilderness never to return.
- The Feast of Booths saw Israel praying for her upcoming harvest. To visibly recall God’s past deliverance from Egypt, they lived in tents for a week. As they then returned to their homes—seventeen days in total after gathering for Rosh Hashanah—they celebrated God’s gift of their permanent dwellings, symbolic of His giving them the Promised Land.
- Passover remembers the biggest event in Israel’s history: God’s original rescue of His people, in His plaguing power over Egypt. Israel sacrificed and roasted a lamb, and still tangibly recall God’s work through readings, foods, and glasses of wine.
- Passover kicked off the Feast of Unleavened Bread. For seven days, Israel recalled the speed with which their ancestors fled Egypt the night of the original Passover.
- The First Fruits Offering marked the beginning of the harvest. A day of thanksgiving, the celebration included offering Israel’s best produce to God, and recalling God’s power and grace in sustaining and providing for His people.
- The Feast of Weeks (called Pentecost) again pointed to God’s provision. Another offering made; more feasts occurred; more thanks shared—this time at the end of the wheat harvest.
LESSONS FROM THE STORY OF ISRAEL
This is more than a bit of Jewish history. Each feast foreshadows God’s work in Jesus’ death and resurrection. These celebrations were celebrated by Jews for centuries and by Jesus Himself. And they inform our own celebrations:
First, Leviticus shows that God instituted intentional celebration into the annual rhythm of His people. God’s people ceased from work and partied. They cooked meat—a luxury in those days—and enjoyed good drink. They made music, relaxed, and played together. They laughed and grieved together. Celebrations are right and good.
Celebrations also cut to the heart of mission: God’s people didn’t celebrate by themselves. They included those around them. Even people with different beliefs. Consider this instruction: “You shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are within your towns.” This idea echoes through the Old Testament Law: “sojourners” were foreigners in Israel who joined the feasts; “servants” from various nations celebrated with God’s people; “strangers” and “aliens” weren’t Israelites but joined their events.
A final Levitical lesson is that people, events, and even milestones themselves were never the focus of Israel’s celebrations. Israel celebrated one thing, in many ways throughout each year: God. They didn’t celebrate grain; they celebrated the Giver of that grain. They didn’t celebrate their power over Pharaoh; they had no such power! They celebrated God’s power. These lessons combine to show us not only that not-yet-believers were invited to Israel’s feasts; they observed—and in ways, even participated—as God’s people celebrated God, on days God created for just that occasion.
REDEEMING THIS HOLIDAY SEASON
If Israel—geographically set apart from the rest of the world—publicly celebrated God in the midst of strangers, foreigners, and sojourners, there’s hope for us as we consider holidays. Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25, and God didn’t invent Halloween or Thanksgiving. But these and other annual days have been carved into our culture, to cease work, celebrate, and engage others. Gifts abound in December, giving us an easy chance to surprise coworkers and classmates with cookies or a brief note. And the world still rings in the New Year with gatherings and far more pomp than Israel’s trumpet blast.
Instead of celebrating this Christmas season, New Years Eve, and other occasions alone or with just-Christian friends—and instead of creating “Christian” versions of special events already happening in our city and neighborhood— let’s celebrate these occasions on mission. Let’s display the gospel through generosity, grace, conversation, and joy. And let’s declare the gospel through stories, toasts, and prayers. Sure, many cultural celebrations have long forgotten God. But we haven’t, and we’ve been sent to those who have. God is sovereign, even the fact that someone declared certain days holidays. God uses even the most broken things—and days—for His mission. How can we do the same?
Ben Connelly, his wife Jess, and their daughters Charlotte and Maggie live in Fort Worth, TX. He started and now co-pastors The City Church, part of the Acts29 network and Soma family of churches. Ben is also co-author of A Field Guide for Everyday Mission (Moody Publishers, 2014). With degrees from Baylor University and Dallas Theological Seminary, Ben teaches public speaking at TCU, writes for various publications, trains folks across the country, and blogs in spurts at benconnelly.net. Twitter: @connellyben.
(Editor’s Note: Used with permission from the authors. This is adapted from A Field Guide for Everyday Mission by Ben Connelly & Bob Roberts Jr. available from Moody Publishers. )