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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Getting Back to the True Message of Christmas

This year, as I've listened to the radio, read Christmas-themed articles, and shopped for gifts in the store, I think I've heard every kind of answer to the question, "What is Christmas All About?"  Some say vague but nice-sounding things like, "giving," "spending time with loved ones," "joy," and "peace."  Some answers are more disturbing, such as the sometimes sexually-suggestive songs that are so popular this season.

You know what?  Christmas is a cheerful season, with lots of pretty lights, nostalgic songs to sing, pretty packages full of things we want, great food, and greater company.  It's become a tradition on many blogs and public sounding boards to harshly criticize the merchandising, the parties, and the tinsel, but I won't here.  I feel the beauty and generosity of the season are good things, which warm the soul and can show God's love to others--obviously when done in moderation and with the right motives.

Christmas got started with a desire to celebrate a very important birthday, which happened for a very important reason.  The real birth date was not known, so one was chosen, possibly to coincide with pagan celebrations in worship of the sun.  In fact, early church members disagreed with celebrating Christ's birthday at all, because it was a pagan practice of the Romans to celebrate the birthdays of emperors, who claimed to be gods (see this article entitled, "Why December 25?" on Christianity today).  Many still reject Christmas for this reason.

 But, I digress.

Stepping back from all the controversy for a moment, I can see the real significance of Christmas is getting lost.  Why should Christians celebrate Christmas at all in the midst of all of this?

To answer this, I would have to begin with the testimonies about Christmas I have heard from my Indian friends and boyfriend.  They grew up surrounded by a totally secular culture that loves constant festivals and ceremonies, revelry and color.  From their perspective, Christmas is perhaps the one big chance every year for Christians to testify to this culture about Jesus' life and message.  It's the one day of the year that Jesus gets any attention in the public lens, however brief it is.  To them, Christmas is a different kind of festival than all the others, focused on hope and Christ's sacrifice, not human traditions.  It's not even so much to them a chance to talk about a baby in a manger--it's a bold time to talk about why Jesus came.  He didn't come for gold, frankincense, or myrrh; He came to die.  The real message of Christmas is the cross.

In the Western world, where most people have heard the story of Jesus before, we can sometimes deceive ourselves into thinking that giving toys and gadgets is a "good enough" witness of the life that Christ has given us.  This is a sad testimony if we really believe it, wrapping up fear and dismissive thinking in the disguise of holiness and generosity.

That brings me to another testimony I found in a newspaper obituary this summer.  It celebrated the life of a formerly-Muslim immigrant from India, who came to my part of the US in the early 1960s.  He was hostile to the message of Jesus until one Christmas season when some kind of personal troubles drove him to accept a friend's invitation to a church service.  Apparently the promise of "peace on earth" in a traditional carol was enough to convince him to give Christmas another chance. The obituary didn't detail much about it, but something brought this staunch Muslim to repent on his knees at home on the evening of December 25, and from then on, he became a bold witness for Christ.  His whole family gave their hearts to the Lord, and took the occasion of their father's death to print his testimony in the newspaper!

So, to ask it again: What is the significance of Christmas?  It's not in the presents or the time with family, it's not in holiday lights, tinsel, or feasting.  It's an occasion to testify about eternal life--the true message of Christ's ministry.  For perhaps one or two months a year (in the West), or maybe only one day in the East, people are listening.  Are we talking?  Can we be bold this Christmas?

I will proclaim the message here, for any searchers who found my blog this Christmas time:

At the beginning of time, God, the creator of life, made humankind to know Him and to live with Him, and in His goodness, He drew a line between what is good, true, kind, and just, and what is rebellion and injustice.  To His dismay, the people He had created chose to cross that line, even though they knew that the penalty for rebellion was separation from God (that is, eternal death of both body and soul).  He didn't want this separation to stand, but He couldn't revoke what He knew was a good law.  This led God to a plan that would both meet the requirements of the law and satisfy His desire for reunion with humankind.  Since death was the punishment, He sent a substitute for those who were condemned to death.  No human substitute could be found, since all humans were already doomed to pay the penalty and couldn't pay someone else's penalty as well.  Therefore, God sent His own son to die.  Christmas celebrates the beginning of Christ's life on earth, which was set to end in death.

Jesus was able to pay the penalty for others because He had not disobeyed God.  The curse of death didn't apply to Him, so God raised Him from the dead.  Now, anyone who recognizes their penalty and asks Jesus to pay it for them can escape eternal death and rise again, with Jesus, in the same way, with the penalty lifted from them.

The reason why we change our ways and begin to obey God after Jesus redeems us from death is not to try to buy this salvation; it is because we reject the folly that got us into this mess.  Rebellion no longer holds its charm when we have seen the freedom that salvation, God's way, brings.  Therefore, if you have asked Jesus to redeem you today, don't return to your old sins.  Learn God's ways, which have brought you life, and reject what brought death.  It is a better and more secure way, as you will discover.

Merry Christmas, everyone!