‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was blogging–no clicks of the mouse. (Apologies to Clement Clarke Moore, but who knew about blogging in 1823?) So here we are, the morning before Christmas. My grown children are still nestled snugly in bed, but I wouldn’t bet on visions of sugarplums–whatever those are.
This weekend, in thousands of homes across the country, some version of the Christmas story will be read. At the very least, we probably have symbols of the story in and around the house: nativity scenes on the front lawn; special ornaments on the tree; Christmas cards on the mantelpiece.
Every child is supposed to know that at Christmas, we celebrate the birthday of baby Jesus. But I find it interesting that the gospel writers don’t seem to make that big a deal out of the event, certainly not when compared to the space given to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. It makes you wonder why Christmas gets so much more of our attention than Easter.
We might notice, for example, that each writer has his own way of bringing the story; each begins in a different place. Mark, in his characteristic cut-to-the-chase style, jumps right into the action with the ministry of John the Baptist. He has no “Christmas story” whatsoever.
Luke goes further back, to the birth of both the Baptizer and his cousin Jesus. From him, we get the familiar images of Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem, the baby Jesus in a manger, and the shepherds being visited by angels. Matthew retreats still further in history, setting up the birth of Jesus with a genealogy that extends all the way back to Abraham. From his gospel, we get the mysterious Magi who followed the star, and the jilted Herod’s brutal response. John, taking the longest view by far, begins at the dawn of time. He gives us a Jesus who embodies the Eternal Word, the one through whom creation itself came into being.
None of these differences mean, of course, that Christmas is of no consequence, nor that there is no story to tell. Far from it. But I think that as a group, the gospel writers are signalling to us that Christmas is but one pivotal chapter in a longer, larger, ongoing story, and that it’s particularly important to understand the Christmas event in that context.
Matthew, for his part, loves to point out that the good news of Jesus is something we should have expected all along, if only we had understood the prophets. In his version of Christmas, he describes Joseph as a righteous man who wants to do the honorable thing despite his distress over Mary’s scandalous pregnancy. An angel reassures him that all of this is part of God’s plan of salvation. Then Matthew, quoting Isaiah 7:14, adds this characteristic commentary:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). (Matt 1:22-24, NIV)
“God with us.” I have to ask myself: have we become so accustomed to the idea that it fails to amaze us anymore?
We might think of some of the ways God revealed himself to his people before. To them, God might be a towering pillar of fire at night, or a protecting pillar of cloud shielding them from the Egyptian army as they fled across a dry seabed. God was the one who routed their enemies, but also punished the people for their disobedience. He caused the ground to open and cities to fall.
And as they suffered in exile, torn away from the Promised Land, they wondered when their God would return–in power!–to rescue them once more. How long, O Lord? was their constant refrain; how long before you send the Messiah you promised? His name will be called Immanuel. God with us, again. God with us, to set his people free with his strong right arm.
But how could God be with us as a defenseless baby, born to a poor, exhausted, and insignificant young couple in a stinking stable or a cold cave, sleeping in some barnyard animal’s feeding trough? What kind of God is that?
Well, maybe this kind: A God who wants to be with us, and who wants us to be with him. A God who identifies with our much too fragile existence by becoming one of us. A God who leads by example, showing us what human life was meant to be, before giving us the power to do it.
The backstory, the great good news, is that God has always wanted to be with us. We were created for that fellowship. From the very first chapters of the story, that fellowship was broken by the curse of sin, and the whole of creation has endured the consequences ever since. But if we sneak a peek at the final chapters of our Bible, we read this:
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21:2-4, NIV)
God with us, among us, forever dwelling where we dwell. Not a God who decrees by lofty fiat that everything wrong shall henceforth be right, but a God who himself dries every tear shed in sorrow or pain.
The angel told Joseph to name the boy Jesus (Matt 1:21): the Hebrew would have been “Joshua”–God saves. It’s often been said, and rightly so, that Jesus was born to die, to save us from our sins. But lest we forget: God didn’t save us for some impersonal reason, as if we had inconveniently made a mess of everything, and God had to mop it up. He saved us so we would be his people; he saved us so he would be our God.
He saved us for a relationship with him.
God with us. That’s the note on which Matthew’s gospel begins. And here’s the note on which it ends: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt 28:20, NIV). Not “I will be with you,” but “I am with you.” Not occasionally, but always–literally, “all the days.”
God with us in our humble and helpless estate, in the cold and dark. God with us in suffering the consequences of living in a sinful world. God with us to give us the hope of resurrection. God with us in the Spirit of Jesus, giving us a taste of that resurrection reality now, staying with us until the climax of the story–a new heaven, joined to a new earth, and life forever at home with him, the God who gave everything to make it so.