There are a lot of legitimate reasons for Christians to be distressed at Christmas:
- Shifting sexual norms
- Public policies that deny human dignity to the vulnerable
- Heresy and controversy in the church.
- The threat of terrorism
- The commercialization of Christmas
- Family dysfunction
- Financial difficulty
I could go on, of course. Life in a fallen world presents us with much to be distressed about. Injustice, dishonesty and despair surround us on every side, more so in this social-media driven, twenty-four hour news cycle. What’s more, it seems people are less inclined to believe in the Christ of Christmas than in previous generations. So we are tempted to despair, to get angry, to lash out in cathartic rage on Facebook, in conversations at work, in our small group, at home with our families.
But when we do this, are we subtly denying the heart of this season’s story, one we claim to hold so dear?
The first Christmas didn’t happen in a sweet, sentimental time. Joseph and Mary are not characters from a Hallmark special; they were ordinary, poor, struggling young people in an otherwise ignoble small village in the Roman Empire. The world was dark, as it is now. Corrupt governments. Failed religious leaders. False messiahs. Life expectancy was short. Wages were low. Taxes were high.
Life was hard, very hard, for God’s people. God had not spoken for four hundred years. There was no prophecy. No visit by angels. Only silence. The words of the prophets, promising a King on David’s throne, a Messiah, a deliverer—these were beginning to ring hollow in the face of crushing Roman oppression.
This is the milieu in which Jesus was born. And yet his birth, as we know, inaugurated the beginning of something new. A new kingdom. A new creation. A new people.
We are the Kingdom people, and it is this story we tell. A story that has endured for 2,000 years, a story of hope and renewal, of mercy and grace, of redemption and forgiveness. More than ever, the world needs to hear the Christian gospel as told by those who are Christ’s disciples.
Christmas is the time of year when the world, at various points, looks afresh at the story of the incarnation. The question is: are we ready to share it. Is our Christianity one of outrage and anger? Or is it joy for the world?
By joy I don’t mean the hopeless sentimentality of vague spiritual promises, but the joy that springs from knowing the Christ, who entered a broken world like ours, took on human flesh, surrendered to the will of the Father at the cross, rose in victory defeating sin and death, and is building his kingdom. The king who reversed the curse of sin, both personally by being our sacrifice and cosmically by renewing and restoring what sin has destroyed.
Is our Christianity this kind of joy for the world? Do people see Christ in us, the ones who make up the church? Do they hear, in our singing and in our preaching and in our living, the story that tells the truth about the human condition, the hope of salvation in Christ, and the future hope of a restored world under the Lordship of Christ?
It may seem that we are in an age when people are less inclined to love the gospel, but I think this world presents us with a fresh opportunity to press this story, our story, the Christmas story into a world looking for answers.
How do we do this?
We do this by resisting the urge to lecture the harried store clerk who says, “Happy Holidays,” and instead, by our disposition, make them wonder what makes Christmas so merry.
We do this by resisting the impulse toward self-protection and self-fulfillment, and instead, pour out our lives, like Christ, in service to those who are most vulnerable.
We do this by making ideological arguments for justice that recognize the basic humanity of those with whom we disagree, because we are the people who are looking, not backward with nostalgia, but forward toward that “city whose builder and maker is God.”
We do this by pressing the gospel into the broken spaces and places in society as we lift up Christ, not sentimentality, as the true source of joy.
We do this by singing, with joy, the rich Christmas hymns that help form our theology and by reading the Christmas story afresh, not as some other people’s narrative, but as our own story.
Let’s make Christmas big this year, not necessarily by the quality of our church productions or the amount of gifts we give or by how many traditions we continue, but by magnifying in our hearts the story of Jesus. This kind of Christianity truly is joy for the world.