Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What Christmas Means to Me . . .

I apologize in advance for this little meditation -- it consists material and concepts I have published on my various blog sites over and over again over the years. So if you've read this stuff before, I hope you'll bear with me. This is, indeed, the essence of everything I believe in, and who I am.


Its been the subject of many of the Christmas movies and television shows down through the years . . . the "real meaning of Christmas." Whether it's Keenan Wynn's Kris Kringle in "Miracle on 34th Street," all the"Whos down in Whoville" in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," or even "Phineas and Ferb" in the new Disney Channel cartoon series, the themes are the same . . . Christmas is over commercialized, and we need to get down to the true meaning of Christmas, which invariably turns out to be some sort of altruistic concept of selflessness and a spirit of giving. Often times the scripture from Luke 2:14 (always quoted from the King James version of the Bible), "Peace on earth, good will toward men." Its this "good will" that is presented as the essence of Christmas.

There is, of course, a kernel of truth in this. But there is one Christmas movie/tv show that truly gets it right. In "A Charlie Brown Christmas," Charlie Brown, in his exasperation over holiday pressures, cries out "Isn't there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?" Linus takes the stage, a spotlight hits him, and he recites the Christmas narrative from Luke 2, with an emphasis on verse 11, "today is the City of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." After he's finished, he says to Charlie Brown, "and that's what Christmas is all about."

Indeed. Its all about a person. Its all about Jesus. Its all about a relationship with this person.

Of course, the perception we have of Jesus at Christmas time is as an infant, lying in the manger. Babies are not very threatening or complicated when it comes to a relationship. Relating to the person of Jesus as an adult -- the one the gospels portray for us -- is a lot more complicated. There is a perception that Jesus, at the Son of God, demands an awful lot of us. A lot of that "altruism" that Kris Kringle and the Whos were looking for. Good behavior. Right and righteous living. Getting along well with others. Unselfishness.

When we think about what we think Jesus expects from us, especially during the stress of the holiday season, it almost seems like we're being watched. Like he's "making a list and checking it twice,"
that he it all figured out, just exactly who is "naughty" and who is "nice."

Wait a minute . . . this is really starting to sound like its related to the Christmas concepts we grew up with.

But the truth of the matter . . . the real, biblical truth . . . is not at all like this.

What is the real meaning of Christmas? Why did Jesus come into the world? In all the hustle and hassle of what we generally face when we celebrate Christmas with our families and friends, I often feel just like Charlie Brown did -- frazzled, under pressure, and feeling like I just don't measure up. I cry out -- "I can't take this any more! Life has too much pressure! What IS Christmas really "all about?"

Jesus has the answer to my question. In Matthew 28:30, he says "Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly." (from "The Message" translation of the Bible).

This is tremendous imagery, reflecting in modern, 21st Century style English the basic message Jesus was trying to tell us. I particularly love the phrase "unforced rhythms of grace" and that there will be nothing "heavy or ill fitting on [us]." That is the essence of Christ's relational style, for anyone who has a real, living relationship with Him.

But the "Message" translation leaves out the most famous part of the original language of this verse -- the part that really has made this verse so quotable over the centuries. Here is the same verses in the NIV:

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Jesus' audience, centered in a primarily rural and agricultural culture of the ancient middle east, would have readily understood the concept of a "yoke." It was usually a large harness made of wood that was fitted over the necks or shoulders of farm animals. It was done either in pairs or larger groups of 4 or 6 animals. The more experienced animals were placed in a position so that what they did, where they went, the things they did forced the other, less experienced animals to go in the same direction and do the same things. In time, the inexperienced animals "learned the ropes" so to speak, and soon were doing and practicing the very same things the older animals did, and they didn't have to think about it. This was a more humane, gentler way to train animals than whipping them or "breaking" them. It was being trained and disciplined in a way that made it seem like you weren't being trained or disciplined. Our relationship with Jesus is like this -- his "yoke is easy." It is in this yoke we learn the "unforced rhythms of grace." Its a kinder, gentler life changing experience. Jesus is SO like that.

In a past discussion on this matter, a visitor to one of my blog sites commented that there is a second cultural angle to this. Its not just an agricultural image, but a culturally religious one. Here is what he had to say about these same verses:

"Jesus was actually using a double meaning for the Jewish word translated into yoke. For a Jew, the word yoke could mean the wooden thing to keep oxen together and go in a straight line. It also means the teachings of a Jewish rabbi. A rabbi would often tour around Israel, and the most famous and well respected rabbis gained quite a following (as we see with Jesus), one of the central marks of a rabbi was their "yoke" their set of beliefs and teachings...from the most famous of rabbis came the formulation of books like the Talmud and it's commentaries. What Jesus was saying there was. Come to me, my teaching is different that what you've seen before, it's not as legalistic as what you've learned, it rests easier on your shoulders. Come follow me and you'll see that the teaching I have to offer is easier."

This is also quite true. It shows how the cultural meaning of the texts offer us a richer tableau to view when we see it through the eyes of those to whom the words were originally spoken, and not just the eyes of a 21st century middle class American.

But it also speaks of relationship. The essence of Matthew 11: 28-30 is Christ's relationship with us. Whether viewed as a connection like oxen yoked together in learning to serve, or a connection to a religious teacher that would offer us a new and better way, the essence is still the same. Its all about relationships -- a mentor walking with his charge, or two persons laboring together. Except the mentor or coworker here is the God of the universe.

Charles Simpson, the internationally known apostolic charismatic leader, said that you can break down everything in the Bible, everything in God's kingdom, to some form of relationship. Any or you who actually read my journal entries on this site regarding the book of Galatians know that this is the essence of what I see coming out of that book -- God's relationship with his people, fulfilled in a promise.

And as I am thinking about Christmas, and what it really means, it is the Incarnation, the concept of God becoming a man in the form of Jesus Christ, that is at the forefront. And this too, is also all about a relationship.

Indeed, the Incarnation is something that is personal to each of us.

There is the anecdote regarding the Mom who finds her preschool aged daughter drawing pictures. Mom asks the little girl what she is drawing. "I'm drawing a picture of God." Mom smiles, and comments "But nobody knows what God looks like." The little girl things for a moment, and continues to draw. "They will now" she says.

That is what happened with Jesus. Before Jesus came into the world, no one had ever truly seen God, or known God, or understood what God was really all about. But when we come to know Jesus, we come to understand . . . we come to truly know "what God looks like."

The essence of the Incarnation is described in John 1:14

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth”

But how is that "relational?"

Well, the "Word" is God, in the form of Jesus.

The concept of becoming "flesh" was viewed by audience that John wrote for as almost vulgar. The Greek word for flesh connotes an earthy, almost scandalous or "in the gutter" type image. "Flesh" means the sensual, the sensuous, the cravings of our natural state. It means being separated from God, inclined to sin, separated from divine influence and control. It was, literally, a "dirty word." I can almost see images from that scene in the movie "The Christmas Story:" where the main character "Ralphie" is helping his Dad change a tire, and uses the "F" word -- the "Queen mother of dirty words." In the minds of the people of Jesus' time, having God come "in the flesh" would have been as shocking as hearing a child use that word. Its like talking about fecal matter -- you can use the word "excrement," or you can use the socially unacceptable word that rhymes with "fit," but you're still talking about the same stuff. That's what the connotation of the Greek word for "flesh" has here.

And think about it. Philippians 2:5-8 says:

"Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature { Or } God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing, taking the very nature { Or } of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!"

Jesus left the glory of heaven --volunteered for the part, and put on this "fecal," dirty matter and be one with us. If your going to truly relate to someone, you have to be at their level. That's what Jesus did when he was born in the manger at Christmas.

This concept is not to be taken lightly. John 3:16, which says "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." Its a verse that isn't often quoted in the context of Christmas -- we usually get Luke 2, or Matthew 2. The Angels, the Shepherds, or the Magi. But John 3:16 is "What Christmas is all about" to quote Linus from "A Charlie Brown Christmas." God loved us so much, he gave us his son. But how do we measure how much God loved us? When you consider the context of the verse quoted above from Philippians, its almost incomprehensible. God, lowering himself to the level of mankind. I had a good friend in high school, who used to try and explain this by saying that to understand how far God had to "step down" to put on that "flesh," we need to picture one of us coming into the world as a maggot in order to redeem all the flies. No matter how highly we think of ourselves, no one of us, or even the entire race of man, is really of any consequence within the vastness of the universe, and of creation. Yet God chose to be just like us, so we could be right with Him.

And he did this on a personal level. This wasn't a grandiose, sweeping concept that would scoop us all up together as an impersonal mass, like a broom sweeping up all the dust at once. Redemption is as personal as holding hands, as a tender kiss. He did this all as a person, as an individual, so that each of us could get to know him, one on one.

He did this by coming live in with us, right in our neighborhood. The words for "made his dwelling among us" in John 1:14 is the same words used when describing making camp -- Jesus literally "pitched his tents with us" when he became a man. He moved in. So we could see him at home, where it really counted, and he could see the same things with us. This is relational living. Jesus wants to be as close to us, or closer, than our own nieghbors. But think of more than just the next house over. Think best friends. Like Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. Inseperable, bosom buddies. That's what this language implies.

That is the essence of the Incarnation -- the essence of Christmas. Christ became just like us, as fallible and dirty and slimey as us -- but he never sinned, he never fell into the trap. But he was willing to come down to our level, to stoop as low as the eternal God of the universe could bend over, so we could see Him as he truly was, and he could relate to us on a personal level. So close, you could see Him working in His yard, talk with him across the back fence, and so he could hear it when your kids practiced thier band instruments.

Jesus became part of our family.

That is the essence of Christmas, ladies and gentlemen, and its why I get excited to think about these things this time of year.

Jesus wants to be my neighbor, my bosom buddy, my best friend.

He wants me to take his yoke upon me, and learn his ways.

He wants to share a meal with me.

He wants to have tea with me (another story I have posted before).

And because of this relationship, I have eternal life, and my very nature has been changed to something that can actually begin to come into line with what those Christmas movies see as the real meaning of Christmas -- that "good will toward men" stuff. Without Jesus, I am doomed to fail in my own efforts to be good. But now that I am a new creation in Jesus (see 2 Corinthians 5:17), I can, in Christ, obey his call to help and serve others.

That's what the Incarnation means.

And my family and I wish all of you a very merry, blessed, and joyful Christmas!!!

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