The Christmas season is here again, and my thoughts turn to you. I know you don’t care for Christmas, and really want nothing to do with decorations, carols, or Christmas-themed parties. Your memories of Christmas are shadowed in a blanket of broken hopes, and haunted by an angry home that raised you. I can’t blame you for wanting nothing to do with the holiday. I can’t blame you for your loss of hope that seems to deepen during this time of the year. My heart hurts for you.
No one knows how many trips around the sun they are entitled to in their lifetime. I, for one, think about that fact a lot, and it motivates much of what I do or do not do. So, in part, I am writing you today because of that reason. The other more compelling reason is that I love you. Love makes people do a lot of things.
You have allowed me to tell you about my favorite restaurants, favorite songs, foods I love, places I have traveled to that have captivated me, childhood memories, and even my grown-up dreams. What you haven’t yet let me tell you is what I write about now. Maybe in a letter you will be able to see me before you close your heart? Maybe not, but time is what I have right now, and words still flow in sentences for me, so while they do, I must take advantage of it.
Strip away everything you think you know for a minute, and come visit an over-crowded town called Bethlehem. I want to tell you just a sliver of the story. Due to a decree from Caesar Augustus, every citizen has been required to return to his town of birth to be counted and to be taxed. It has caused entire families to have to uproot and travel great distances, while figuring out how they will provide for themselves while they are away from their homes and occupations. Some of these people are angry that they had to come. Some left quiet communities in the countryside and are forced to share space with noise, animals, and crowds. Some are suffering from medical issues, some are fragile and frail, and some are just hours away from giving birth.
It is here in this overcrowded town, God introduces us to a baby–born of a virgin, in a stable, sometime after Mary and Joseph’s arrival in Joseph’s home town of Bethlehem. I imagine their journey was slower than some. Mary was uncomfortable, and riding a donkey is no smooth sailing. Her journey was likely peppered with contractions–“braxton hicks”, they call those. The kinds of contractions that hurt like the dickens, but produce no labor. Possibly because of their slow pace, they arrive in Bethlehem too late to find housing. Of course, Bethlehem wasn’t set up to receive large crowds of people, so space would have been limited to start with, and now with all of these families showing up because of a new law, everyone was taxed for space as well as money.
It is in the middle of this hustle, noise, complaints, exhaustion, and trial that Jesus is born. There is no news coverage of His arrival, and in fact, no one in town is anticipating His birth that night. So angels in multitudes, are discovered to be singing and celebrating in the skies over Bethlehem by some shepherds in the fields. Maybe because they were farther from the chaos of town they could hear them, or maybe because their eyes were opened that night, they could see them. Either way, they were the first recipients of the news of the Baby born who would split the timeline and forever render the hearts of humanity.
So what does this have to do with you? You might ask. Maybe the question should be, “What does He have to do with me?”
Here is where the story of Jesus differs from any other in history. The difference is in the fact that Jesus’ birth was predicted and planned long before He arrived in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago. Predicted by prophets and leaders of nations from the beginning of time, this promise of a Savior has been written about throughout history. His birth was not random, nor solely a unique birth story, it was planned, purposed, and intended. The reasons for His birth may or may not surprise you, because that is where the story becomes personal.
Because you and I would live with pain and broken dreams, because we would be the victims of evil, and because we would be bent to self-destruction, you and I need a Savior. Because we would try to accomplish many things, and find ourselves failing, and because we would always have a desire to “be good people” but find ourselves choosing selfishness, greed, pride, and self-protection, the people around us would also need a Savior. Because we come into this world with nothing, and when we leave it we take nothing with us, we need this Jesus and the promise that He embodies.
Jesus was the physical installment on a promise made before you and I ever shed our first tears. He would be the One to pay for our mistakes, receive our punishment, embrace our brokeness, and heal our hearts. He would come to expose our hearts and the hearts of humanity. His life would reveal our selfishness, our greed, our religious bigotry, and our sin. We would observe a life lived for others, poured out in compassion, and piercing with conviction. We would watch someone blameless, suddenly receive the fullest punishment reserved for the most wretched of criminals. We would hear his words, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” as his last breaths are expelled in suffocation. He wasn’t just a “Jack Sommersby” who would die for the sins of another man. No, this Jesus would die for the sins of the whole world–past, present and future–including yours and mine.
Even that is not the end of the story, though, because Jesus was a promise–a promise that God sees and loves us, that God would make the world right again. So He begins by exposing our hearts and showing us how dark our thoughts are and how selfish our actions can and have become. He pours out compassion on the broken, diseased, rejected, and seeking through the life of Jesus. He frees those tormented by evil spirits, and by society’s indifference. He takes the punishment for all crimes, sins, and evil thoughts, and he dies on a cross by crucifixion–taking the shame and guilt of all to the grave.
He is still a promise, though, and the promise cannot die, so there is a three-day period where we do not hear or see Him, and then God raises Him back up from death to life, and with His resurrection, the promise is made even more sure that you and I will rise again. Because He lives, so will we even though our bodies may die.
So what good is it to live again after we die? The answer to that question is wrapped up in the answer to the reason we have lived in the first place. We were created. We were designed. The same God who made Himself known in Bethlehem as a newborn baby, is the same God who formed you and I. He purposed and planned that we would be alive right now, right here, in this era of time, and that we would know each other. He, Himself keeps track of the hairs on our head (or the lack thereof), and each tear we have cried. He creates each day with mercy in mind, and offers us oxygen to breathe–in and out–and minds to think, to choose, and imaginations to create. For His pleasure, you and I were created. Because He loves us, He planned us. Because He loves us, He gives us this gift of life.
You can look around at people God has created. In many you will see the absolute beauty of His handiwork. You will see mercy, compassion, love, self-sacrifice, creativity, imagination, craftsmanship, strong work-ethic, deference, servant-hood, and leadership. You will also see greed, anger, rebellion, bitterness, hatred, bigotry, shame, guilt, and decadence. Sometimes you will see a little of both extremes in the same person. How is it that you “see” this in the first place? You “see” it because you were designed to recognize beauty, and because God has also wired you to despise evil. Because Jesus has come and exposed our hearts, you now have a standard by which you can see what goodness is by God’s definition.
Christians don’t always exhibit the goodness of God. You know that too well. I, like you, get disgusted with those I see who profess a piety of life while selfishly trampling on the lives of other people. They are like someone dressed as Jesus, wearing His clothes, and committing crimes. Somehow Jesus gets the rap for their bad behavior. Because of the sins of some, Jesus is dismissed–not just at Christmas time, but for entire lifetimes.
If my heart has been exposed by Jesus (as it has), and selfishness, greed, envy, strife, anger, and prejudice have been found lurking in it’s halls, then I need a Savior. My punishment before a good and holy God will be exacted out without delay. Even Jesus did not escape the punishment that He volunteered to take, so how would you or I squeak by when we are actually deserving of it? We won’t. We have to throw ourselves upon the mercy of this Jesus, asking Him to receive us as one for whom He paid the penalty of sin. We, like the wise men and shepherds who came to visit that young baby, must fall on our knees and bow before the One who has the power and authority to make us “right again” before God, and give us the “want to” to live out God’s character.
You and I, like Bethlehem so many years ago, must receive this Jesus. Our hearts must prepare Him room. In our noise, confusion, bustle, anger, frustration, and darkness, we must open our eyes, and open our ears to hear that His birth is good news. Our knees must bow before Him, and our hearts must confess that He is who He claimed to be, that He has exposed our hearts and told us the truth about our character, and that He alone has paid the penalty for our crime. Like the gift of soap and warm water after days of mud and grime, it must be received, and then it must be applied.
Then let everything your heart rejoices in, find its home in the character and grace of God. May every sunrise tell you that He loves you and has given today to you as a gift. May every act of mercy by you or another point you to the endless mercy and grace of God waiting to be poured out on a broken world, by those of us who have known it well. Because He loves us, we know that He also loves our neighbor. Why else would a God choose to be a man, and die a cruel death before a world that didn’t seem to care? He loves us. He loves you.
The greatest thing I could ever share with you, outside of my love of Peruvian coffee, is the most critical piece of the reason you are alive, and why we are friends. I want you to see Jesus. I want you to know Him. I desire so much for you to test His truth claims, and evaluate His life. I want you to see yourself in His story, because you are one of the reasons He came. You’re worth it all.