Almost everyone is familiar with the Christmas story. The tale of how Mary and Joseph were turned away from the inn and gave birth to the Son of God in a stable is traditional holiday fare. Even those who consider the story to be a myth have at least heard it and recognize the characters.
That familiarity can be a problem. Many of us have heard the tale so often that it loses its impact. We have heard the story for so many Christmases now that it becomes part of the background, like Christmas carol muzak in a department store or mall, and we fail to appreciate the impact of Christmas.
The real impact of Christmas lies beyond the manger scene. Christmas is really about what the newborn infant would do some 30 years later as an adult.
Christmas reminds me of the scene in Talladega Nights in which Will Ferrell leads his family in a mealtime grace, addressing the prayer to “little baby Jesus.” Baby Jesus in the manger is a nonthreatening image that is easy to celebrate because a newborn infant is not controversial and makes no demands of us.
The problem with limiting our view of Christmas to the manger scene is that the babe in the manger came to shake things up and make difficult demands of us. The newborn baby was an infant on a mission. The baby Jesus was born to die.
If we fast forward about 30 years to see the ministry of the adult Jesus, we would get two central themes to his message. One, that we should love our fellow man, is another common Christmas theme. As Bill and Ted put it, Jesus taught that we should “be excellent to each other.”
But Jesus’ second theme is even more important. Beyond loving others, Jesus taught that we should love the God who created us and seek after him.
In fact, the most important message from Jesus’ preaching can be distilled down to two verses. In John 10:30, Jesus said, “I and my Father are one.” In this verse, Jesus made the controversial and earthshattering claim that he is God. A few chapters later in John 14:6, he made another extraordinary claim. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” Jesus said. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” In two short statements, Jesus overturned the conventional wisdom that priests and sacrifices were needed to approach God.
Jesus’ statements were either the ravings of a madman or the herald of a new way of looking at life and God. After a few short years of itinerant preaching, he would be executed by the Romans with the complicity of Jewish leaders. Far from being a tragedy, however, Jesus’ death sealed his victory. It was why he had come in the first place. As Jesus had previously explained to his disciples, he “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
You see, like Jesus, we are also born to die. I once saw a t-shirt that said, “Life is sexually transmitted and always fatal.” We are dying from the day we are born.
Unlike Jesus, who as the Son of God holds the ultimate power over death, we are its mercy. As sinners, we are doomed to eternal separation from God as punishment for our misdeeds. It is in this realization that Jesus’ mission is made clear. He did not come to bring world peace or military triumph. Contrary to what prosperity gospel preachers say, he did not come to give his followers worldly wealth or to heal the sick. Even though he is capable of doing all these things, Jesus came to give us a chance at eternal life and the ability to triumph over death.
Christmas is about hope. The hope that would ultimately be fulfilled by the adult Jesus on the cross. The baby in the manger would grow up to sacrifice his life for ours, but the gift of sacrifice must be accepted.
While the baby in the manger makes no demands of us, the resurrected Jesus who died on the cross demands that we put aside all other paths to God, believe in him, and make him Lord of our lives. In return, we receive salvation and eternal life, the ultimate Christmas gifts.