Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent. Four weeks later, we will have Christmas Day. For some, the time will pass in a frenzy of shopping and wrapping– the time will fly by! For some, the time will pass in meditation and reflection– it may seem to crawl. For some, the time will pass with no difference from any other time of year. For most of us, there is a sense of anticipation…we are waiting for something: the “Christmas Spirit,” the festivals and events, the time spent with loved ones far and near…
Christmas, more than any other day, brings this sense of expectation. We sing songs, listen to stories, reach out to friends and neighbors– all in anticipation of a single day. And sometimes, the anticipation and expectation exceed the realities of the day. We feel disappointed in the gifts, or the weather, or the circumstances. But our anticipation shouldn’t be about the single day on the calendar. Christmas is so much more than just a day, or even just the “spirit” of the day.
We don’t know the actual, historical day when Christ entered human history as a baby. As the Gospel of John relates– “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word WAS God.” (John 1:1) But this Word, this Only Begotten Son of the Father, this second person of the Trinity, DID enter human history as a member of the human race. He came and dwelt among us, His creation. He walked and talked, ate and slept, worked and wept, lived and died as a man. The Lord of All Creation tasted freshly baked bread and felt the first raindrops of Springtime. The King of the Universe wiggled His toes in the sand, and wiped sweat from His brow. The Lamb of God shared belly-laughs with His friends over a shared joke. The Lion of Judah wept over the death of His friend. The Author of Life knew what it was to die, abandoned and betrayed.
None of this is anticipation for us, as it was for the prophets of old. It is history. Christ has already come. He already lived a life of compassion and grace, wonder and weariness, agony and anticipation, and, most of all, Love. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that Whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting Life.” John 3:16 Christmas for us is not about anticipating Christ’s arrival. Christmas is the celebration of what that arrival means for us all these years later and forevermore. And we can celebrate all the wonder of Christ on any day of the calendar year. But there IS real anticipation at Christmas– the anticipation of Eternal Life and Christ’s triumphant return. Just like the prophets waited and wondered, we wait in Hope of a glorious reunion.
Christmas, December 25, 2022, may be a disappointing day–it may be dreary, gloomy, lonely, or disappointing in its circumstances. It may bring us bad news, or heartache. But it will also bring us another opportunity to rejoice– to rise above whatever circumstance brings to focus our thoughts forward and upward, where Christ, who once came as a baby, now reigns and rules and waits– anticipating the same reunion that brings us hope and healing.
When I was very young, I liked to believe that my parents were perfect– at least as close to perfect as people could be. When I was a teen, I realized that my parents were NOT perfect. In fact, it seemed that I knew much better than they did, and much more as well! With time, I’ve come to realize that they did the very best they could with what they had and what they knew. They were never perfect, but they were good parents, and I’m very thankful for them.
Jesus had imperfect human parents. Mary, though chosen by God to bear the Savior of the World, was not chosen because she was perfect. Nor did she become perfect in her own obedience. Jesus was HER Savior, too! Mary and Joseph did the best they could with what they had and with what they knew. But they still managed to “misplace” their own son at least once that we know of (see Luke 2:41-52). Such an incident today might be grounds for Jesus to be removed from his home and placed in foster care.
But Jesus also had a perfect Father– God. Jesus was both the Son of God and the Son of Man– completely Divine, and completely human.
As we travel through the Advent season, it is good to remember that the same Jesus who called on His perfect Father, is the same Jesus who taught us to pray, “Our Father.” Not all of us have had “nearly” perfect human parents, but ALL of us can call on a perfect Father in Heaven. Jesus came to earth, not just to die for our sins, but to show us how to relate to this Divine and Holy Father. We can call on Him in our need; we can call on Him with our sorrows and agonies, as Jesus did in the Garden; we can call on Him when we are alone; we can call on Him in a crowd; we can listen and obey His voice; we can please Him! We can trust in God’s faithfulness through every moment of every day, every step in our journey, and every valley we must face.
Jesus wasn’t created, as we were– He was “begotten” of the Father–“born of” the Father, in the way we are born of our parents’ DNA. (see John 3:16, John 1:18, and Psalm 2:7) And this relationship is eternally existing– “Ere the Worlds began to be” and throughout all of time. It is not a relationship that can ever be dissolved or altered. Jesus will never “become the parent,” nor will God cease to be the Father. Though He is equal in divinity and power, and equally worthy of our praise, Jesus will always act in accordance with the Father’s will– never against it or in His own separate motivation.
It is difficult to understand, that Jesus always exists, yet He was “born” at a particular time in history and “lived” only 33 years as “one of us.” We see time as being linear– everything has a “season” or a time of beginning and end. Not so with Jesus. As a human, He had an experience of “life” similar to ours– days and nights, weeks and months, festivals and birthdays, growth spurts and hormones, toothaches and hugs and laughing so hard His sides ached.
The Advent of the Christ was not the “beginning” of the Christ–only His arrival at that particular experience in time as we know it. Yet this arrival was so unique, so miraculous, so spectacular, that all of our human time is divided into “before” and “after” that single event. We don’t divide time by human achievement (i.e. Before the moon landing/after the moon landing or before the invention of the printing press, etc.) or by natural phenomena (before the last Ice Age or after the eruption of Vesuvius). Time centers on the single act of God’s begotten son arriving as a helpless baby in the middle of an otherwise ordinary night.
Mary and Joseph were mere mortals, ordinary human parents entrusted with fostering and caring for the very incarnation of their Divine Creator. They were imperfect. But they were guided, empowered, and held fast by the very God growing up as a child in their midst.
And when they “misplaced” their son? He was, as expected, not “lost,” but merely visiting His “Father’s house.” He could not have been safer. They need never have worried or felt ashamed.
This season can be difficult for families– some of us have hurtful memories of our childhood with imperfect parents. Some of us are overwhelmed by guilt or frustration as the imperfect parents of our own children. May this season bring us renewed hope and joy in our unshakeable, unbreakable relationship to our perfect Heavenly Father, through the gift of His only Begotten Son. We can rejoice and feel secure– Evermore and Evermore!
It is one of the most popular Christmas Carols– we sing it every year: “Silent Night, Holy Night; All is calm, all is bright; ‘Round yon virgin mother and child– Holy infant, so tender and mild; Sleep in Heavenly Peace– Sleep in Heavenly Peace.”
Each year, we celebrate the coming of Christ– “Son of God; Love’s Pure Light.” God coming to earth to live among His creation– Emmanuel, God with us. And it becomes familiar, and gets mixed in with stories of Santa Claus and gift-giving, decorated trees and flying reindeer.
But stop a minute to reconsider the amazing juxtaposition–the very Word of creation became a speechless baby. The ruler of galaxies came to earth naked and needy, hungry and helpless. Holy Infant–fully God and fully human in His frailty.
God could have come as a ruler of might; He could have stepped out of Heaven in a blinding flash of light, spoken with a voice of thunder, and made the mountains tremble. He could have filled the skies and scattered all the stars and clouds. He could have come in all His Majesty– and someday, that’s how He will return.
But on that Silent, Holy Night, He came in humility. He came in Heavenly Peace.
What an awesome enigma–the One who would break the power of death came in the weakness of an ordinary birth. The Giver of Life choosing to reside in the womb of an ordinary young woman, gasping for air as He took His first breath as a human. The omniscient one having to learn to sit up, and eat, to speak and to hold His mother’s hand; to stand up and walk.
God SO LOVED us that He went to extravagant lengths to meet us in our humanness. He didn’t need to become human for His sake– He did it for us; that WE could know Him more intimately; so that when we talk to Him, we are talking to one who has known hunger, and pain, and heartbreak, and loss– as one of us.
It is terrifyingly easy to miss the significance of the incarnation after the fact. As we remember the Advent season, let us reflect on the world before that Holy birth.. a world so fallen that no one could imagine the face of God; no one could imagine walking with Him or sharing a meal or a smile with Him; no one had ever felt His touch on their cheek or heard Him laugh. No one could have imagined that God would bleed, or cry out in agony, or taste death. But He came. He lived and walked among us. He died. And He paid the penalty for your sins and mine, so that we can share life with Him– eternally.
“Of the Father’s Love Begotten” by Aurelius C. Prudentius, 413, cento Translated by John. M. Neale, 1818-1866 and Henry W. Baker, 1821-1977
1. Of the Father’s love begotten Ere the worlds began to be, He is Alpha and Omega, He the Source, the Ending He, Of the things that are, that have been, And that future years shall see Evermore and evermore.
2. Oh, that birth forever blessed When the Virgin, full of grace, By the Holy Ghost conceiving, Bare the Savior of our race, And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer, First revealed His sacred face Evermore and evermore.
3. O ye heights of heaven, adore Him; Angel hosts, His praises sing; Powers, dominions, bow before Him And extol our God and King. Let no tongue on earth be silent, Every voice in concert ring Evermore and evermore.
4. This is He whom Heaven-taught singers Sang of old with one accord; Whom the Scriptures of the prophets Promised in their faithful word. Now He shines, the Long-expected; Let creation praise its Lord Evermore and evermore.
5. Christ, to Thee, with God the Father, And, O Holy Ghost, to Thee Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving And unending praises be, Honor, glory, and dominion, And eternal victory Evermore and evermore.
Christ’s Humility and Exaltation 5 Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, 6 who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited.[a 7 Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, 8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death— even to death on a cross. 9 For this reason God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow— in heaven and on earth and under the earth— 11 and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:5-11 (Christian Standard Bible–CSB)
An early Christian poet penned the words for this Christmas Hymn over 1500 years ago. He was echoing the words of the Apostle Paul from 400 years before that. Paul’s “hymn” was expressing truths penned by prophets and songmakers stretching back centuries before his time. From the earliest recorded writings of Moses we see the same themes: God is eternal–eternal in existence, eternal in power, eternal in glory; God extends himself on behalf of his creation–giving, sacrificing, inviting, forgiving; God exalts the humble–he notices the overlooked, elevates the lowly, honors the meek.
These themes have not changed in centuries, but our interpretation and usage of them has. I still love this old hymn, and the passage from Philippians, but I see people, Christians and non-Christians alike, using phrases like, “Let no tongue on earth be silent,” and “Every knee shall bow” not as invitations or extensions of God’s glory and sacrifice, but as threats. I find this understandable, but not defensible– especially coming from Christians.
I think our modern world has lost much of its wonder and ability to see “honor, glory and dominion.” We spend our days “debunking” any idea or person who might seem worthy of respect or honor, but we replace them with ideas and people who are less worthy of respect, because they make us feel superior and smug in our own complacent, convenient lives. We are satisfied by glitter, instead of seeking glory. We have given the word “dominion” the same negative connotation as “colonialism” or “conquest”. We do not choose to honor humility or service– we celebrate what is brash, flashy, loud, and self-serving.
Some of our modern churches and worship services fall into the same trap. We give more honor to the worship band and the comfortable seats than we do to the creator of the heavens. We spend our money on t-shirts and CDs proclaiming the wonders of OUR faith, but we don’t have any money to share with those in need just two streets away. I am not saying that this is unique to our time, or that the early Church was without fault. But there is a very different feeling one gets in entering a medieval church or cathedral–they were not built for human comfort, but to inspire the sort of knee-bowing, tongue-confessing awe found in the ancient hymns. Jesus grabbing a cup of Joe and plopping down next to us in a climate-controlled, renovated movie theater does not have the same effect. We are sometimes left with the impression that Glory is ephemeral and glittery, and God is more interested in our comfort than in our transformation.
So when we read that God is eternally glorious and that every knee WILL bow and every tongue WILL confess– we see this as coming from a self-important little-g “god” who compels his creation to worship him out of a vain desire for imputed glory. In contrast, the Bible presents a God whose very nature IS Glorious. We worship him when we see him as he is. When we choose in this life to exalt ourselves and ignore God’s invitation, and the ways in which he reveals his glory here on earth, it doesn’t diminish his glory or change his nature.
Consider a beautiful sunset. There was a glorious sunset in our area last Saturday night. Several of my friends posted pictures of it– it was awe-inspiring! That was its very nature. But many people missed seeing it, or recognizing its beauty. After all, the sun sets every day. This sunset came and went like all the others. The sky didn’t force anyone to look at it, but it was visible to anyone who would see it. God’s presence, when fully revealed, will be stunning in its Glory and impossible to ignore. Every knee WILL bow and every tongue WILL confess– simply in awe of it. God invites us to open our eyes, to catch glimpses (like Saturday’s sunset) of the glory he imputes to even the most ordinary and humble things in life.
And so it was in the incarnation. God’s glory arrived in the form of a baby– one among thousands in Judea, His divine nature wrapped in the ordinariness of arms and legs, cooing and crying like any other baby, born in obscurity, yet announced from the beginning and heralded by the very hosts of heaven– Here HE is! Come and behold Him! Worship and adore Him! Evermore and Evermore!