A couple of years ago a pastor pointed out to me that Christmas is not a big deal for most Kenyan Christians. While we love the Christmas holiday season, food, new clothes for the children, travelling home (or to the beach if you have the money), most churches will make scant mention of it until the Sunday before and the next Sunday it’s quickly forgotten. For many of us the repertoire of Christmas carols doesn’t extend much beyond Joy to the World and O Come all Ye Faithful (first verse). In fact fewer people go to church on Christmas day than any other time of year – the complete reverse of the UK.
The Kenyan pastor went onto say, that for us the death of Christ is much more important than the birth of Christ. And my initial gut reaction when he said that was – that’s great! Isn’t that how it should be? The reason for Christmas is the Cross (Gal. 4:4-5; Heb. 2:14-15). For many Christmas Day church-goers in the UK, the gospel-rich carols are purely background music; they have a sentimental glance towards the birth of Christ but want nothing to do with the death of Christ – the epicentre of the glory of God and the only hope for sinners. Surely one of the great strengths of the African church is its unashamed lifting up of the Cross of Christ.
But then as I thought about it a bit more I started to see what the pastor was getting at. There is real danger in ignoring the incarnation. We lose a lot. In fact the more you think about it the more you see how not making much of the birth of Jesus skews our whole view of the gospel and the Christian life.
How? What exactly would we lose if Jesus was beamed down as a fully grown man an hour or two before the crucifixion, did some amazing miracle to prove who he was, explained what he was about to do, got up on the Cross and suffered for our sins?
- Personal – the fact that we have Jesus being born as a baby, being taken to Egypt, returning, going to the Temple as a twelve-year-old, walking around as an adult for three years interacting with all sorts of people, a ministry recorded for us in 4D, means that we can know Jesus as a person. Here is not just a cog in a system, a name, a party in a transaction – here is the beautiful person of Jesus to follow, to love, to push on in knowing better and deeper. The gospel is not a concept – it is a person called Jesus, receiving him, being united to him, rejoicing in him.
- Puny – Incredibly the world was given that first Christmas a tiny child (Isaiah 9:6), a puny saviour, a God who couldn’t even move. Yes Jesus is Mighty God (Isaiah 9:6) but the Mighty God came in utter humility and smallness. This tells us something extraordinary about the sort of God that we have. Not merely a God of raw power but a God who will reveal his glory – shine forth his essential God-ness – most dazzlingly as he hangs naked and constrained on a cross.
- Pattern – As Philippians 2 says, we should have a manger mindset like the God who humbled himself. If God was raw power, godliness would be power but God is humble so our life is to look like his – becoming a nobody, washing feet, pouring out for others, carrying a cross.
- Practical – The incarnation, as Irenaeus and later Luther saw, makes everyday life just as sacred as ‘religious life’, everyday spaces just as sacred as the monastery or church building. Christmas gives us a practical Christianity, a Monday-Saturday Christianity, a Christianity of the home and workshop and road and mundane practical sweat-it-out obedience rather than just a ‘spiritual’ Sunday faith consisting only of singing, reading and praying.
- Progressive – the birth of Jesus reminds us that we are dealing with a story, a narrative, a flow of events in history. Our salvation did not take place on the head of a pin. It was planned before the Creation, it was prepared for through thousands of years of history, Jesus was born, he lived, he died, he was buried, he rose, he was seen, he ascended, he poured out the Spirit, he’s coming back. That’s the gospel. It’s not an abstract system, it’s a story that we’ve been swept up into and which should shape all our thinking and feeling and acting.
- Perfect righteousness – as he lived for thirty or more years he was fulfilling all righteousness on our behalf; he was weaving a glorious garment of love and obedience and faithfulness that one day he would give to me in exchange for my filthy rags. The anchor of my assurance and peace is the stupendous news that not only has Jesus completely paid for my sin, he has clothed me ‘in royal robes I don’t deserve’ to stand boldly before the King.
- Perfect High Priest – Christmas means Jesus knows what it is to be a frustrated toddler, to have the hormones of a fifteen year old boy; he knows what it is to be to be completely exhausted, to be hungry and thirsty, to be tempted in every way we are. He is perfectly equipped not only to be the perfect sacrifice but to be our merciful, gentle, completely understanding high priest.
It’s striking that one of the earliest and most serious heresies in the church was the denial that Christ had come in the flesh – fully man. Let’s linger at the manger this year and not forget it too quickly…