Publication: Pastoral Letter, December 2002
Dear Friend in Christ:
This is a joyful season for us, and we pray that it will be for you and yours. Nothing in all history approaches the great blessings of Jesus’ entrance into the world. It is no wonder the angels sang, “Joy to the World!” Words collapse under content of His great goodness and mercy.
Remember, there were shadows waiting to be shattered by that glorious event: the shadows of oppression, economic slavery, and religious impotency. And there are shadows over the celebration of this season: terrorism, war, disease, and in many cases, economic hardship.
However, these are not the shadows of which I write. There was one shadow which covered the manger, and even on that glorious night, it spoke of a day 33 years later, when the noonday sun would hide itself from the darkness of human sin. The shadow of which I write was the Heavenly Father’s purpose in sending Jesus into the world – the shadow of the Cross where this same person would die for our sin.
We cannot comprehend the magnitude of Jesus’ entrance into human history, and we can only imagine a world without Him. But when we look at regions where the Gospel has not been proclaimed, we get a glimpse of what it would have been like without Him.
John tells us that Jesus was the pre-existent Eternal Word; He was God and with God before the beginning began (see John chapter 1). His coming into the world was foretold by prophets centuries before He came. His lineage was chosen beforehand: Shem, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, and David. “In the fullness of time,” the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would bear this child conceived by the Holy Spirit. Joseph was told to name Him Jesus, because He would save His people from their sins.
Caesar Augustus decreed that a census should be taken, and that caused the return of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, where prophecy concerning His birth was fulfilled. And when the night finally came that would end history’s waiting, angels sang in the glory-lit sky, and shepherds scurried to the place of His birth. As many prophecies fell into place, a new story began to be told of God’s salvation.
Jesus was born in adversity, for adversity, and triumphed over it. The angels’ voices had barely quieted, the shepherds and wise men had scarcely gone, when Herod (a descendant of Esau), began killing babies in Bethlehem, hoping to kill this new-born King. But he failed. Joseph, being warned in a dream, took his family to Egypt, and soon after, Herod died.
Joseph then took Mary and the young child back to the “unpopular” village of Nazareth to grow up and learn the ways of His heavenly Father and the needs of suffering humanity.
The next glimpse of Jesus that the Scriptures give us is recorded in Luke 2:41-52. Jesus’ family had taken Him up to Jerusalem and to the temple. They returned with a large company of pilgrims, believing that Jesus was with other relatives. But He was not. After a search, they returned to the temple to find Jesus discussing theology with the experts. His parents issued a mild rebuke to Jesus, but He replied, “I must be about my Father’s business.”
The purpose of the Father casts a long shadow over the Old Covenant and its prophecies. It also casts a long shadow over the manger and entire life of Jesus. He was born to die for our sins. We cannot truly celebrate His life without understanding why He was born.
Sadly, many people will only see the hollow symbols of that birth and miss the content of it all. The Christmas trees, the gifts, the dramas, and choral presentations will play out under the sparkling lights of a festive season. But the shadow of the Cross will be missed by most.
The Gospel of Luke was written by Luke after investigating and interviewing eye witnesses. Many scholars believe that among those interviewed was Mary herself. It is completely logical to believe that at an early age, Jesus also became aware of the special events surrounding His birth. The One who read Isaiah 61 in His home synagogue must have also become acquainted with Isaiah 50 and 53. Somewhere in early life, He must have seen the shadow.
THE CROSS AND CHRISTMAS
Some would ask, “Is it really appropriate to talk about the Cross during this joyful Christmas season?” I would ask, “Can we honestly celebrate His birth and ignore the primary reason for it?” To fail to make the connection is to fail to understand the celebration. The Gospel is not just a part of the story; it is all of it.
There are three events in Jesus’ life, which are often celebrated separately, but they never stand alone. They are like three peaks in one mountain range: His birth, His death, and His resurrection. Without all three, no single one would be celebrated. He was born Savior, died to save, and rose again to prove that He could save us from our sins.
The Cross was not some coincidental tragedy that happened unfortunately to a nice person. It was not left to fickle human hands. It was the purpose of God from before the beginning. In John 12, it is recorded that He prayed, “What shall I say, Father, save me from this hour? But for this purpose I came into this hour.” He came by the Father’s will to die in our place for our sins. He is our Savior, and our only Savior.
Most religions have heroes – dead ones. But no other religion offers the virgin-born Son of God who Himself died for sinners, arose from the dead, and then ascended to Heaven to intercede for their deliverance.
A “pluralistic” view that would attempt to equate all religions is merely Satan’s attempt to make Mt. Everest a molehill and turn molehills into Mt. Everest. No mere religion or religious hero can stand alongside Jesus. It behooves us to look at His entire life, death, and resurrection as we celebrate His birth. Then and only then can we give His birth its rightful place and rightful praise.
THE REAL GIFT
Secular society has sought to capture Christmas. They might as well attempt to capture the sun. They give us an empty package nicely wrapped, but no virgin birth, no cross, and no resurrection. Such a gift is worth less than the wrapping paper and tinsel that covers it. To accept such a gift would leave one hopeless in the end. It has no warranty, only empty claims.
The real gift was wrapped in swaddling clothes – a plain, inexpensive wrapping. But what a gift – God’s love for sinners, the Hope of Eternal Life through forgiveness of sin. The real gift was more than good teaching or answers to life’s great questions. The real gift was that God gave Himself for whoever would believe and receive Him.
SEE THE SHADOW
The problem of eyes not touched by God’s eye salve is that in “seeing,” they do not really see. Perception is reality to our generation. So we see surface symbols and miss significance. The manger scene is a symbol. The shadow of the cross is the significance of His birth.
He was born to save us from our sin through His death on the cross. The angels said it, “For unto you is born this day a Savior Who is Christ the Lord.” Savior…Christ…Lord. Those three words form the essence of Christmas. He is the Anointed One to deliver us from sin and to reign in our lives.
Do you see the shadow over the manger? The shadow is not the difficulties of ancient Israel or modern America, it is the Father’s will: the cross where He bore our sins, paid the price of our iniquities, and gave us the right of justification. It is the place where we exchanged our ashes for His beauty.
Does the shadow extend into your life? Do you live beneath the shadow of the Father’s purpose? When I see the manger, and all that history has attached to it, I am reminded that the same Jesus called me to take up my cross and follow Him. As He was sent by the Father, so He has sent me (see John 20:21). No, we are not virgin born. We are not saviors, and no, we are not called to pay for the sins of the world. But we are called to declare the One who was, and the One who did all of that.
We must not be compliant to a conforming, lowest common denominator view of this sacred celebration. We need to see and declare the “whole package,” and confront the world with the whole counsel of God. We must handle Jesus’ story with integrity worthy of the original reality: birth, death, and resurrection. That will pack real praise and worship into this season for the great gift that we have received!
God bless you this season.
Scripture Reference: John 1, 12, 20:21; Isaiah 50,53