It has become a platitudinous seasonal greeting of our day, I know, but I really do wish you a merry Christmas. Seriously, I mean it. Sincerely.
For us, Christmas is not just a cultural excuse to indulge in excessive amounts of food and give each other gifts. At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, though it must be said it seems to be increasingly less obvious to many with every passing year, Christmas is that time of year when we celebrate the incarnation. As some have put it, we remember the very ‘in fleshing’ of God. Sure, there’s a debate about when exactly it took place, but what really matters is that it took place. God entered our world and became a man.
And let’s just push behind the ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’ sloganeering, just for a moment. Whilst I appreciate the heart behind that sort of messaging, it doesn’t really tell us much about why Jesus, as opposed to any other birth, is worthy of mention. Of course, we may accept in Jesus we have the birth of a baby who would become a culturally significant man. Still, in essence, Christmas is basically viewed by many as the interesting story of a man being born who changed our culture and lots of people admire. But, frankly, the same could be said of Clement Attlee or Margaret Thatcher [delete as per your political leaning]. For many people, the Christmas story carries as much significance as celebrating anyone or anything who has made a cultural impact. As far as they’re concerned, we may as well be celebrating the birth of that dog who won the X-Factor once.
But that’s not what we’re doing as Christians. Christmas is not when we remember the cultural impact of Jesus. Nor are we fundamentally celebrating the birth of a man, though Jesus was of course that. We are first recognising that God took on human flesh. The eternal, almighty God came into our world as a man. That is first and foremost what we remember.
But if that is all there is to the Christmas story, we are dealing with little more than an ancient myth. Even if we consider it a true story (and Christians do), God becoming a man of itself, whilst perhaps interesting and unusual, is of no great importance. If Jesus Christ came to earth, wandered around saying some nice things and then shot back up to Heaven to resume his pre-incarnate relationship within the triune Godhead, there would have been little purpose in his coming. At best, we might celebrate Christmas as the time God came to teach us in person. But, up to then, God had been perfectly happy sending prophets to speak his words and we never bother celebrating any of their birthdays! So we are celebrating more than just God coming into the world as a man.
As Christians, we are celebrating the very reason God took on flesh and entered our world. There are many verses that speak of why Jesus came into the world, but few are as well known as John 3:16-17:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
The Bible says that each one of us needs saving. Saving from what? The effects of sin and death. The apostle Paul writes ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Rom 6:23) and ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom 3:23). We need saving from ourselves. The world is not how God originally created it to be and we are not how God originally created us to be. The effects of sin blight both our lives and the world around us. Famously, when writing in to The Times on the question of what is wrong with the world, GK Chesterton answered with two words: ‘I am’. The problem with the world isn’t out there, it’s in us.
The wonderful news of Christmas – those glad tidings of great joy – were, at heart, that God himself would become our saviour. That is why his name was Jesus, for he will save his people from their sin (Mat 1:21). Jesus Christ, in becoming a man, entered our broken and fallen world in order that we might be saved through him. As God, he is able to pay the infinite price that God’s righteous justice demands. As a man, he is able to act as our representative – living the life, and dying the death, we couldn’t – in order that we might no longer be separated from God by our sin but brought into that loving and eternal relationship he originally intended for us to have with him.
So when I wish you a merry Christmas, I really do mean it. I hope that this Christmas is the one where you see beyond the food on the table and the gifts under your tree (though I hope you enjoy them too). I hope you even see beyond the stable scene and the baby in the manger. Let us see, not just the brute fact that God came into the world, but the reason why he came. Why not make this year the one that you come into a true and lasting relationship with the living God? After all, that is really the ‘reason for the season’.