John 3:16; Matthew 16:24
Pretty soon we will be celebrating Christmas. For many of us Christmas is a wonderful time of year, maybe even our favorite time of year. It’s filled with joy and laughter and love as we gather with loved ones to share special moments and memories. There are parties and programs, special music and tasty food. And yes, even special worship services that warm our hearts.
For others of us Christmas is a difficult time. Some of us who come from countries other than Malaysia will be observing Christmas far from loved ones back home. Those who have recently lost a loved one may find it difficult to get into the holiday spirit. If that is true for you, my prayer is that you will feel a special touch from the Savior whose birth we celebrate this time of year.
But while Christmas is joyful for some and difficult for others, for all of us Christmas is dangerous! We probably don’t usually think of Christmas as being dangerous, but today I want to suggest four dangers of Christmas, four dangers which if we can overcome, then and only then will we experience Christmas in all its fullness.
The first danger is illustrated, believe it or not, by a story from the lives of Orville and Wilbur Wright. The Wright brothers grew up in Dayton, Ohio, where as young men they opened a bicycle sales and repair shop. As you know, their scientific bent and specifically their curiosity as to the possibility of flight eventually led them to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. There, just a week before Christmas, on December 17, 1903 Orville and Wilbur Wright became the first human beings to build an airplane and fly it successfully. They immediately sent a telegram to their sister back in Dayton that read, “First sustained flight today, fifty-nine seconds.” And then they added, “Hope to be home by Christmas.”
Realizing the sensational importance of her brothers’ achievement, their sister rushed the telegram to the local newspaper editor. But he, failing to understand or appreciate that a history-making event had occurred, published a report in the paper with the headline: Popular Local Bicycle Merchants to be Home for the Holidays.
Focusing on a mole hill, that editor failed to see the mountain. Highlighting that the Wright brothers would be home for Christmas, he missed the history-making event. He missed the big story.
How easily that can happen to us this time of year. Our schedules fill up with Christmas concerts and parties. We endure the frantic mobs at the mall. Maybe some have to rush out there this afternoon to do our Christmas shopping. Some of us have been busy baking Christmas goodies and getting all the Christmas decorations up. We send out Christmas cards to all those people we communicate with just this one time of the year, or perhaps we’re still putting that off. We’ve been getting the house ready for holiday company or maybe we’re getting ready to visit elsewhere. We’re probably out of breath just thinking of all the things that need to be done this time of year. The “peace on earth” that the angels spoke of to the shepherds seems as distant from us personally this time of year as those hills outside of Bethlehem where those words were spoken.
Not that there is anything wrong with all the holiday activities. It’s just that amidst this hectic rush of the season there is the ever-present danger that like the newspaper editor in Dayton we will miss the Big Story. Focusing all our attention on all these things, which in the whole scope of things are but mole hills, there is the very real danger that we will miss the mountain. The Big Story gets crowded out by all these other matters.
And what is the Big Story? This brings us to the second danger of Christmas. If the first danger of Christmas is that we might miss the Big Story as the true significance of Christmas gets lost amidst all the holiday activities, the second danger of Christmas is not that we will miss the Big Story, but that having heard it so many times before we almost become immune to it. Our familiarity with the Christmas story is almost like a shield that prevents us from receiving its full impact.
The Big Story, of course, is that “God so loved the world He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life (Jn. 3:16).” The Big Story is that we don’t have to spend our days or our eternity separated from God. The Big Story is that we can be forgiven of our sins, freed from guilt, and released from shame because the Savior has come.
The Big Story is that we don’t have to guess or hope that God loves us; we know it for a fact for the life of Jesus proves it. The Big Story is that the baby born in Bethlehem was not only a human baby but also God the Son who came that we may have life and have it abundantly.
The Big Story is that God is gracious and merciful and forgiving and in the coming of Christ He invites us to Himself. Our life in this world can be filled with purpose and joy, and we can be assured that our life in the next world will far surpass anything we could hope for or imagine. The Big Story is that through the baby born in Bethlehem we can know God personally and spend eternity in His presence.
That’s the Big Story. But the danger is that for many of us - especially those of us who grew up in the church and have been in the church for years and years – the danger is that by now we’ve heard all that so many times that it hardly fazes us anymore. We hear the Christmas story read from Scripture and celebrated in carols, and of course we enjoy it, but it no longer impacts us. For us the story has lost its edge.
I love watching the Olympics and one of my favorite Olympic memories took place in the 2002 Summer Olympics held in Sydney, Australia. One of the exciting and totally unexpected stories from those Olympics concerned an American wrestler. His name is Rulon Gardner. He comes from a small town (Afton) in Wyoming, the son of a dairy farmer.
Gardner faced the most difficult task of any Olympic competitor in any event. He competed in the heavyweight division and actually made it to the final round. He had the chance to compete for the gold medal. But absolutely no one gave him a chance. As far as everyone else was concerned, there was no point in even showing up because winning that match was totally out of the question. Of all the Olympic events – in swimming, track and field, gymnastics, boxing, the heavyweight division of Greco-Roman wrestling was the one that had a sure winner before the competition even began.
Gardner’s opponent in that match was Alexandre Kareline, a wrestler from Russia known as the Siberian Bear. Why was Kareline practically given the gold medal before the Games even started? Because in 12 years of international wrestling, he had never lost a match. During those 12 years, he had won all three Olympic gold medals during the three previous Olympics and nine World Championships in the non-Olympic years. Every year he was the world’s best.
In fact, in the previous ten years no one had even scored a point against him – and that was competing against the top wrestlers in the world. A wrestling score is typically something like 5-2 or 6-4. So imagine a baseball pitcher who not only won every game for ten years, but never even allowed a run during those ten years. Or a hockey goalie or football goaltender who never allowed a goal in ten years of international competition. That’s unheard of!
Kareline was in a class by himself. In fact, many of the top wrestlers in the world would not even finish their matches against him. They would quit because of the painful punishment they were taking on the mat from the Siberian Bear.
So what happened? The impossible happened. What no one thought could happen happened. This farm boy from Wyoming beat the best heavyweight wrestler in wrestling history. Gardner won the match 1-0 in overtime. The Olympic crowd and the wrestling world were in shock. “No way! Impossible!” they thought. It was the most surprising story from the Olympics.
If Kareline would have won the match as everyone expected, there would have been no story. Kareline always won, so it would have been no big deal. People had been hearing of him winning every year for 12 years.
What we need to try and do is hear the Christmas story like the wrestling world heard the news that Gardner beat Kareline. If it came as a shock that Gardner beat Kareline, then it is earth-shattering news that God became one of us in Jesus Christ. When we hear the Christmas story our response should be: “No way! Impossible! God became one of us? God came to us as a baby born in a manger? And He stooped to that to show us how very much He loves us? He did that to save us from our sin? Unbelievable! That is incredible news!”
No matter how long you’ve been a Christian, no matter how many Christmas’s you’ve celebrated, no matter how many times you’ve heard the story, try to hear it this year as if it was the first time. God loves you and longs to fill your life with good things. He loves you so much He became a human being in Jesus Christ that through His life and ultimately His death on the cross you might enjoy the fullness of life now and spend eternity in His presence. There is no greater news than this.
Of all the stories that are a part of human history, this is THE BIG STORY. There is nothing more amazing, more surprising, more life-changing, or more true than this. So this Christmas, consider anew what God has done for you and the depth of His love for you. Don’t let your familiarity with the story inoculate you from its full impact. Rather embrace this incredible, astounding news and all it means for you with your whole being.
Then there is a third danger associated with Christmas. This danger comes to those of us who really like the Christmas story. In fact, we like it so much that we never want to move beyond it. It’s like small children watching a video and they come to a part they really like so they replay that one part of the video over and over, never seeing the rest of the video.
When our children were about three and four, there was a video we had, and in one scene a man fell in a river. Our kids thought that was the funniest thing ever, so they would watch that and then ask us to rewind to the beginning of that scene, and they’d keep watching and laughing at that part over and over. They didn’t care about the rest of the video.
The part of God’s whole redemption story that we like and want to watch over and over, never moving beyond it, is God as a baby in a manger. For we like babies. They’re cute and cuddly, harmless and non-threatening. As the line from the carol Silent Night goes, we like to think about the “Holy Infant, so tender and mild.” It’s comforting. It’s heart-warming. It gives us “warm fuzzies” thinking about the baby Jesus, tender and mild.
And so we may want to stay locked into that little part of the story of what God has done for us in Christ. We don’t want to move on to the rest of the story. We want to keep Jesus in the manger – not to keep the baby safe but to keep ourselves safe, for there in the manger we can control Him and He doesn’t demand anything from us.
In saying this I don’t want to minimize the beauty and the warmth of the Christmas story. It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful thought than the all-powerful Creator of the universe demonstrating both His love and humility by coming to us as a helpless baby so we could see God in a way we can understand. What a captivating picture of the love and tenderness of God. If that doesn’t warm our hearts then our hearts we must have ice water flowing through our veins!
As I’ve implied from the first two dangers of Christmas, we need to let the full impact of the Christmas story, of God in a manger, flood our minds and souls. It’s just that we must avoid the danger of stopping there, for if we stop there, not only will our understanding of God be limited but our response to God will fall far short of what it should be.
And this brings us to the fourth danger of Christmas. Graham Kendrick wrote a Christmas song that contains this line: “If we keep Him in the manger, then there is no danger from the Christmas Child.” There is a danger that we will want to keep Jesus in the manger, and the reason we want to do that is so we can avoid the further danger that comes with letting Him out of the manger. So, the third danger of Christmas is that we try to keep Jesus in the manger, and the fourth danger is what happens when we let Jesus out of the manger.
When we let Jesus out of the manger – that is, when in our minds and hearts we let Jesus out of the manger, when we let Him grow into a man, a teacher, a prophet and ultimately a Savior, we find ourselves confronted with One who claims to be Lord and wants to be our Lord. We find ourselves face-to-face with One who beckons us to follow Him, but who adds that anyone who follows Him must first lay down his or her own life, deny him/herself, and follow in obedience. (Mt. 16:24)
In other words, we must yield our allegiance to Him and choose His will for us over our own will for our lives. It means we do such things as love our enemies and become a servant to others and put the interests of others ahead of our own. It means we give Him control. No wonder we want to keep Him as a cute and cuddly baby in a manger!
One person (Loretta Girzaitis) has put it this way:
Within a few days it will be Christmas. Toward the end of December, we will celebrate the birth of a child: small, meek, tender, vulnerable, appealing. A baby will be in our midst. It will not threaten nor carry any power. It will require only those things necessary for personal survival and growth.
Lying in his cradle, Jesus will not request us to be poor in spirit. He will not bring any religious leaders to task. He will not mingle with the rejects of society. He will not call us phonies nor whited sepulchers (whitewashed tombs). He will not upset our money tables. We can be quite tender with baby Jesus.
When he enters adulthood, we begin having mixed feelings about him. He turns the tables on us, and his adult demands are disconcerting. They shake our value systems. They force us to reflect upon our behavior and to examine our commitments.
As an adult he cannot be cuddled nor cooed over. He presents a facet of himself we had not expected. He becomes perceptive, incisive, demanding our best. He speaks with authority, inviting us to make him the center of our lives. That makes us uncomfortable.
He upsets routine. He breaks up families. He sleeps in foxholes. He lies naked on a cross. He expects us to follow him.
What a contrast the adult Jesus is to the powerless baby lying on the straw. Both tug at the heartstrings of humanity. Yet friendship with the adult is different from friendship with the child. Both solicit love. Yet caressing the baby is not the same as responding to the mature person.
Let us enjoy this memorable birthday which brought into history the God who changed the destiny of humanity. But let us also remember that, eventually, we need to let go of the cuddly baby. We need to permit the powerful Christ to enter our lives, even at risk of changing them.
We fall for the danger of trying to keep Jesus as the baby in the manger as a way of avoiding letting Him out of the manger. For when we let Him out of the manger we see that He demands our complete surrender to Him, for He would be Lord of our lives. The danger of letting Jesus out of the manger is that then we lose control of our lives. Not that we aren’t responsible to make our own decisions anymore, but now those decisions are submitted to His will.
But even in this we see the grace of God. Yes, God demands our all. We surrender our will to His and follow His purpose for our lives. But the other side of that coin is that God values each and everyone of us so much that He has a purpose for each and everyone of us. Just think if God had no purpose for your life. Your life would be meaningless. It would be futile. But as it is, Jesus calls us to Himself. Yes, He calls us to Himself that we might experience the salvation He came to bring. But He also calls us to a new way of living. He calls us to specific acts of obedience because He has a special purpose for each of us and He entrusts the work of His kingdom to us. Each of us matters that much to God.
That’s why we must lay down our lives. That’s why we must deny ourselves. For only when we do that can we truly discover and live out the special purpose He has for us. Only when we give Him control of our lives can we experience the fullness of His grace day by day.
And surrendering to Jesus is not only about the things He calls us to do, but also the kind of person we can become. Jesus wants to transform our lives. Jesus want to help us get rid of those ugly parts of who we are – our quick temper, our jealous streak, our selfishness, our greed, our resentments and bitterness – and replace them with traits such as patience, kindness, other-centeredness, generosity, forgiveness, love, and goodness. As we surrender to Jesus, the Lord of all, by His grace we experience His transforming power in our lives, and what joy that leads to!
In coming to Christ, we not only see that God loves us but that He values us so much that He has a purpose for us, He entrusts His work to us, and He helps us grow into people of Christ-like character. As Jesus said, it’s only as we follow Him, laying our lives down in that process, that we come to receive life in all its fullness. That’s what God wants for us – life in all its fullness. And we can trust God with all of this, for Christmas demonstrates how much God loves us and desires our good.
So yes, there is a danger of letting Jesus out of the manger, but it’s only as we do so that we receive the gift of Christmas in all its fullness. Only then do we embrace the life Jesus came to give us. Only then do we grasp the true meaning of our lives. God doesn’t want us to just “ooh and ahh” over Him – this cute little baby in a manger. Rather He wants us to live lives that are full and meaningful and thrilling. And to do that we must let Jesus out of the manger and follow Him as Lord.
Christmas is a dangerous time. There is the danger that amidst all the holiday festivities we will miss the Big Story, the story of what Christmas is really all about. There’s the danger that being so familiar with the story it will not impact us as it should. There is the danger that being so drawn to and enthralled by the baby Jesus we will try to keep Him in the manger. And there is the danger of letting Him out of the manger where we must respond to Him as Lord of all.
But if we can navigate through these four dangers, if we can overcome them, then Christmas will be for us all that God intended it to be. Then and only then will we experience the joy of Christmas, knowing that the One who has entered our world as a baby is Lord of all. And those who receive the Christ Child as Lord and King will also share in the wonders of His love for all eternity.