First published 23 December 2011
I was walking back from the office to where my car was parked in a side road one evening a couple of weeks ago. It was 5:15pm, cold, dark and crisp. It was early December, and one of the local residents had newly decorated the outside of their house with Christmas lights. Pulsing, multi-coloured chains. A reindeer running. A glowing, sparkling snowman, with a glowing, sparkling polar bear. I smiled as I walked past, glowing with the prettiness and the fun of it, picturing the smiles on the kids’ faces.
And I got thinking of the excitement of my own kids as they look forward to Christmas, the fun and enjoyment they have from having presents, the fun they had decorating the tree, the way they all still enjoy opening the doors on their Advent calendars every day. And I thought of the candlelight carols, the Christmas crackers and mince pies with family that we spend far too little time with at other times of year.
Christmas is a time of joy.
Before I started writing this I had in mind to write about all the things I dislike about Christmas. For one thing, I was taken seriously ill on Christmas Day 2009 and I’ve been made redundant three times – all of them just before Christmas. But that’s not important. I was going to complain about the commercialisation, the materialism, the overspending. I was going to bemoan the way that we exalt lie of Santa above the truth of Jesus. Jesus is, after all, the ‘reason for the season’. I was going to ask why we celebrate the humble coming of the Son of God with glitz, glamour and excess, why we celebrate the coming of the sin-bearer with drunken parties and greed.
Don’t get me wrong. Those issues are important and they are worth talking about. But it’s the joy of Christmas that I have found myself reflecting on.
Joy is good. We were made for joy, not for hate, anger, despair or bitterness. God wants us to be happy.
From one point of view the source of our joy is morally limited. For example, if we get enjoyment from killing people, that’s wrong; if we get enjoyment from sexual immorality, that’s wrong; if our enjoyment comes from stealing, that’s wrong; and so on.
But is the enjoyment of innocent things always right? That would be part of the response if I were to criticise the Santa cult. “It’s just a bit of harmless fun!” (There’s the ‘no harm principle’ I was talking about in “Whose Rules Rule (Part 5). Allegedly, if it does no harm it must be right.) How can we criticise fairy lights or tinsel? There is surely nothing wrong, per se, with parties, with alcohol, with glamour, gifts, trees and decorations, snowmen, and even myths of a red-velvet-clad-bearded-bloke and reindeers.
The answer is that it depends on our attitude to these things. We were made to glorify God by finding our joy in Him. One way of doing that is when we respond with joy, amazement, wonder at the beauty of creation, we are supposed to complete the thought with, “Thank you, Father”. When we feel loved by, and love for, family and friends, we are sharing an emotion that God had first – first within Himself, between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and then shared with His human children. We were made for joy – not any joy, but a joy that explicitly exults in God.
So if I love the nature programmes on TV, I must realise that God made those wonderful creatures for us, so that we would marvel at how wonderful, great, wise and gracious He is.
If I love competing and doing sport, I must realise that God gave me skills and talents, and that these are a microreflection of God’s skill, wisdom and power.
If I love a good book, or a nice car, music, drama, movies or paintings, I must realise that God gave human beings creativity, imagination, and aesthetic appreciation, so that we would be like Him who created the universe from His own perfect design, and so that we would see the designer and creator behind everything.
When I love another person so much I want to spend the rest of my life with them, I must realise that Jesus feels much greater love for His people, the church, and that “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
When I love my children more than anything in the whole world, I must realise that this is only a pale shadow of the love my Heavenly Father has for me.
And God’s love is exactly what is supposed to be in view when we celebrate Christmas. “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.” (John 3:16)
When we think of the sin that cuts us off from God, the source of life and everything good – our sin – we know we are powerless to save ourselves. There is nothing we can do for ourselves to take away our sin or to make God think differently about it. So when the angel said to the shepherds, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people,” (Luke 2:10) he was not exaggerating.
It really is good news of great joy that the eternal Son of God should put off His eternal glory and take on Himself our weak human flesh in order to die for us on the cross. “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord,” the angel said (v11). Another angel had said to Joseph, “you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)
The coming of Jesus Christ into the world is a cause for celebration. In fact it’s the biggest cause for celebration the world has ever known! The only bigger event to celebrate will be when He returns to bring a complete end to this broken world and bring in the new and perfect world. To say that Jesus Christ is worth celebrating would be a massive understatement!
The travesty of Christmas is when we have so much enjoyment of the celebration that we forget that we are celebrating God’s grace towards us. But that’s the travesty of life in general – when we get so caught up in the world, good and bad, that we forget/refuse to worship the God who is in charge of it all, and we fail to accept His offer of forgiveness through faith in Jesus.
So as we do all our celebrating this Christmas, as we smile at the pretty lights in the winter darkness, as we share the thrills of the children as they open their presents, as we stuff our faces with lovely food (and maybe the odd glass of wine), as we relax with friends and family – let’s not forget the reason why Christmas is so worth celebrating. Let’s keep the joy of Christmas and praise God!
‘O Come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!’
Merry Christmas, everybody!