If you live in the United States, then you know that come the day after Thanksgiving, Christmas lights go on, Christmas music gets played on the radio, Christmas shopping begins and Christmas hours begin at stores. Even before then, Starbucks breaks out its Christmas cups (an important sign that the peppermint mocha is back!) Come mid to late fall, culture begins to remind us of the story of Christmas.
I have fond myself wondering however if culture tells the right story. We tell a story of consumerism. We tell as story of compassion. We tell as story of greed and we tell a story of family. We sing songs that tell stories of reindeer and snowmen, of Santa and elves, of jingling bells, and roasting chestnuts… but do we actually tell the story of Christmas.
Growing up we always had a nativity in our front yard. At one point in my youth we had a large plastic and colorful one with three wise men all clad in multiple colors, Joseph, Mary (in blue and white of course) a shepherd, a sheep, and of course, a baby Jesus. As I got older we invested in a much nicer plaster nativity that had more members including a goat, an angel, and a cow (apparently it was important that the livestock at the birth of Christ was adequately represented).
It became a fad for some people to go around and steal the baby Jesus that was in Nativities around the area. People would drive around at night and steal the small, sculpted, holy infants and do God knows what with them (pardon the pun). This became such a serious issue that a company actually developed a GPS tracking system for monitoring and tracking baby Jesus. Therefore, if a thief met your decorations in the night, you could track the dastardly bandits to their place of baby Jesus storing refuge and regain the infant to its proper glory in your front yard.
Why do I tell you this? Because amidst Black Friday shopping, decorating the tree, caroling, opening presents, eating way to much food, and ordaining your yard with festive plaster statues… its easy for most of us to actually miss Christmas.
If we fail to see Christmas as an earth-shattering, history-altering, epoch-making event, we fail to hear the Story of Christmas. Although it marks the birth, the beginning of the life of Christ, first, Christmas marks the end of history. Christmas is about endings and beginnings. If we only see the endings Christmas brings, we fail to hear the prophetic message of what is to come. However, If we focus on the beginnings that Christmas marks, we fail to remember the heritage we inherit, and the eager expectations, which met the birth of a small, impoverished child two-thousand years ago.
A Different Birth?
The story of Christmas does not actually begin with the Birth of Christ. Luke, the author of the Gospel of Luke, begins his telling of the Christmas story not with a retelling of the door buster deals that pervaded the Roman Empire a few years Before Common Era (BCE) but with the story of a Priest, Zechariah, and his wife Elizabeth. After hundreds of years of where humanity has felt that God has been silent, God’s people feel as though God has abandoned them. They are oppressed, they are poor, they have lost faith, and they are awaiting a sign, asking, a deliverer. They expect God to come through for them and they have not heard anything lately. Perhaps we meet Christmas in the same state, lost hopeless, feeling like God has been silent for so long and that he has no intention of showing up anytime soon.
So here are Zechariah and Sarah in the same state. They have no children (embarrassing in that time) and are two old to conceive. After hundreds of years when God’s people have felt helpless we meet Zechariah, just before he encounters an angel of the Lord who tells him that he and Elisabeth will indeed give birth to a child named John. (Luke 1:7-9) All at once Luke reminds us of the history we have in Abraham, the patriarch of Christianity (and Judaism) our forefather, when God met with him and promised him a son as he and Sarah were without children and in their old age (Genesis 12:1-3; Mary refers to the covenant with Abraham in 1:54-55 as does Zechariah in 1:72-73). Luke also points foreword to Luke 1:26-38 when the same angel visits a young unassuming virgin named Mary, telling her she will give birth to one who will be called Jesus, the one who will be an eternal king, one who is God in the flesh. Luke ties together these vital points of our story, reminding of our heritage and pointing towards our destiny.
Ok, maybe you didn’t immediately think of the Genesis story. But Jews in the first century did. They knew their story, they were aware of the significance this story had for their ancestors long ago.
The End of a Long Story (and the beginning of a new one)
A few years ago my Grandfather (whom I had never met) received a burial in Arlington National Cemetery. Vic Miller was a heroic fighter pilot in WWII, (they don’t allow just anyone to be buried in Arlington national cemetery, especially 28 years after their own death). My grandfather received those honors however. Now s we pulled up to the service, we saw a huge parade of servicemen waiting in the rain to march down to my grandfather’s place of burial, we saw the folding of the flag, and the unveiling of the iconic white tombstone on the hill. It was a memorable moment. At that point I did not know my Grandfather’s story. How he shot down Japanese fighter planes, risking his life time and time again. I didn’t know him in his life as a father, as a husband, as an artist. However, when I looked at my aunts, uncle, and my mom, I saw in their face the weight of the moment. This wasn’t simply a funeral; this was the end of a story, a long tumultuous story. For them, they knew the begging, they knew the ins and outs, and they knew the importance.
As God’s people heard of this birth, as they awaited his voice, they knew the story, they had the anticipation, and they needed this moment. From before the time of Abraham humanity has been straying away from God. We seek other things to worship, golden statues, power, kings, money, sex, drugs, self-empowerment… the list is infinite but the point the same, God requires all of our worship and we offer him none. And he has been calling to us, through the years, through the ages. He called to Noah, he called to Abraham, and he called to Moses. He called to his people though kings and prophets. And the history, our history is the same… we hear him, we like what he has to say, but we continue to turn away. Something that is true of all of us is that something else takes our focus when God calls us, whether its finances, problems, parties, stress, events, schedules, something else takes our focus away from the story of Christmas. What God does before Christ’s birth is sends someone before, someone to once again call humanity back, to prepare the way. He calls a man named John, the son of Zechariah and Elisabeth.
The End of Sacrifice
Those who looked to God brought the best of what they had and offered it as atonement for the sin that they had committed. Yet, as we enter the season of Advent, the time of waiting and anticipation, we enter a time in which sacrifice as our ancestors knew it was brought to an end. No longer would we offer our prized possessions to satisfy our debt, because a child would come, a perfect child, who would take away the sins of the world, who would be the prefect sacrifice, the only sacrifice, and the final sacrifice. Just as Christmas should remind us of where we come from, whether your year was filled with sadness, loss of a job, loss of a family member, divorce, heartache, pain, or perhaps all of that and more. Christmas marks the end of the anticipation for hope. Christmas marks an end to sacrifice. Christmas marks the end of waiting for God to show up after what may seem like a long silence.
There was a time before there was a Christmas, a time before the lights and songs and presents. Humanity simply waited, our ancestors waited for the very first Christmas, they awaited God’s arrival. Let us approach this season with that anticipation, let what we have experienced before fade a way; life as we know it now and have known it in 2011 will end. Let us anticipate the hope that God will show up with the assurance and promise that he will.