How A VHS Tape Can Helps Us Recapture the Spirit of the Nativity

With your permission, I want to diverge from my normal writing and provide you with a movie review of sorts in an effort to remind our hearts that the nativity story is for those on the wrong side of the tracks.

For the sake of the innocent, I will omit the name of the 1990’s Christian kid’s special that was reintroduced to me the other day via my kids’ iPad. It’s nothing grand. The special in question was the kind of thing us nerdy, homeschool kids checked out from the church library (curb your enthusiasm). It was as G as G can be, and yet it is still worthy of discussion and reanalysis all these years later.

The special develops around a Christian middle-school student who reaches out to the bad kid in school, because said kid express little interest in the school Christmas play. Because the Christian student goes to the troubled kid’s home for the purpose of letting the bad kid know he has friends, the troubled kid decides to participate in the school play. Later that night, the now redeemed kid takes the relationship a step further and saves said Christian kid from a Christmas-Eve mugging. The special then cheerily ends with the Christian kid offering up a soliloquy on the true meaning of Christmas against a backdrop of hugs, smiles, and twinkling Christmas lights.

As I watched the special as an adult, I noticed that something was missing from the last scene. Better stated, someone was missing, the bad kid. Though extracted from the recesses of the criminal world, the bad kid never fellowships with the nice middle-class family. He’s never invited into that intimate family circle. Essentially, he is still not one of them.

When Fiction Becomes Reality

I found this little vignette from the Christian film world to be troubling because it reflects how many Christians approach ministry at the holidays. We want good for people that are not like us. We happily send gifts, deliver food, and rally to this community cause and that ministry project as our kids count down to Christmas. That is good. Truly it is better to give than to not give. But we stop at the gift. Though we may help a thousand people, we never invite one of them into our home. If those we helped at Christmas actually showed up at church, many of us would look at them funny, wondering why they came wearing those clothes. I’ve been around churches that gave large sums to gospel-focused endeavors while they simultaneously adopted policies that prevented people with certain social-economic characteristics from using this restroom and that vehicle. In other words, those institutions wanted good for everyone, but they did not want the bad kids in their homes, churches, and cars until they could achieve the correct level of niceness and sophistication whatever that maybe. Perhaps, they could come over next Christmas.

Jesus’s Approach to Christmas

Though we often keep the proverbial bad kids of the world at arms-length, Jesus embraces them. Jesus providential decreed that several pagans, a prostitute, and woman who had kids with her father-in-law would be part of his family tree. He then extends the first Christmas invitation to stinky shepherds who did not even possess the right to testify in court because their class was so derided by nice Jewish society. The second divine Christmas card went out to the Wisemen in the form of a star. Though we sing of them fondly in our day, the Jews of Jesus’s day discounted the Magi as uncircumcised, pagans with an unhealthy preoccupation with occultic practices. The original nativity scene consisted of men and women unwelcomed by nice, religious society.

But Jesus did not simply spend time with the lowly and hurting. He made them part of his eternal family. At his death, he ripped down the curtain that kept men and women from reaching God. He died on the cross so that he could clothe repentant sinners in his righteousness for the purpose of making the sorrowful outcasts of the world his glorious and joyous children. Paul describes the thrust of the Christmas message this way, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Jesus did care for practical needs. He taught sinners, gentiles, and tax collectors. He feed them and healed them. But he also welcomed them into his heart into his home, calling them his family. Where that 90’s Christmas special truer to the message of the first Christmas, the bad kid would have been the one delivering the closing speech against the backdrop of his new family.  

Yes, But, and Luther

Because we have the benefit of hindsight and the biblical text, we can be tempted to look indignantly upon those who get the Christmas story wrong. Though we may fall short of Jesus’s perfect calling, we still believe ourselves better than most. We can be tempted to say that we would have handled that 90’s Christmas morning better. For that matter, we would have handled the first Christmas night differently. We would have shared our room or hitched a ride with the wisemen. Perhaps we would have. Perhaps we would not have.

To find the answer to this fanciful historical experiment, we don’t have to time travel with Mr. Peabody and Sherman. We simply ask and answer the questions, “Do I love the bad kids?” When we sit down to Christmas dinner, do we see the faces of foster children, or the uncle the everyone hates, or the poor family down the street that quite frankly has a little body odor issue? Do we welcome the Mary’s, shepherds, and Wise men of our day into our homes and churches? As Martin Luther noted,

“Who is there on earth who is not surround be poor, miserable, ailing, erring, or sinful people…Why does he not do to them as Christ has done to him…It is a plain lie and deception for you to think you would have done a lot of good for Christ, if you do not do it for these people.”

Are the bad kids welcome in your home? What are we waiting for?

The End

While that 90’s Christmas special failed to fully portray the good news of great joy, we thankfully are not bound to last century’s animation techniques nor to their sweaters. We don’t have to keep rewinding and replaying an incomplete gospel Instead, we can pop-in the true message of Christmas, a message of love and adoption, from which we all can find the inspiration needed to welcome the bad kids into our homes and church. The question for us this holiday season is: will we?

The Story of Christmas, The Gospel of Jesus

Sharing the Christmas story with my church family has proved to be one of the highlights of the holiday season. I construct my narratives the around four-part gospel presentation (God, Man, Christ, Response) highlighted in Greg Gilbert’s book, What is the Gospel. I am excited to share one of those retellings of the Christmas story with you today.

The Script below was designed to be read aloud in a congregational setting. But I believe it will hold up quite well when you read in your comfy chair or at the kitchen table with your family. I hope this recounting of the Christmas story helps you rediscover the joy of knowing that the baby in the manager is Jesus, our Messiah who saves us from our sins.

Merry Christmas!

In the Beginning

The Christmas story is a political story. But it is not the story of elections, debates, and shady deals. Yes, King Ahaz gets a less than honorable mention, the Emperor Augustine makes a brief appearance, and the wicked King Herod sets the divine family on the run. But the Christmas story is not about these men and their governments.

As Jesus would one day tell the Governor of Judea, “My kingdom is not of this world.” 

According to the Bible, God’s kingdom transcends the limits of earthly space and time. God lays claim to the universe and everything it: physical and spiritual, visible and invisible…and even you and me. Psalm 89:11-12a declares that, “The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it, you have created them;” The triune God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) deserves to be worshiped for he created and sustains the universe. 

God also created the first humans, the first royal couple, Adam and Eve. God designed them to lead all humanity to love and goodness, placing them in the center of his beautiful world, the Garden of Eden. For a glorious season, the first couple lovingly nurtured the flowers that swayed in the summer breezes, the creatures that danced in the meadows, and the fish that splashed about the oceans. All was good, pure, and right. All was peaceful between God and man, between man and man, and between man and nature.

But, this glorious world would not last. Adam and Eve would fall from their thrones.

The Political Crisis that Necessitated Christmas

One day, Eve entered into a conversation with a wicked serpent, whom God had tossed out of heaven. This snake told Eve that God was a liar who would exploit the first royal couple.  

First Eve and then Adam believed the snake. They thought rebellion against God would enable humanity to reach heights of unimaginable new achievements. When the first man and women sunk their teeth into a piece of forbidden fruit, they kicked off the greatest revolution of all time.

But their rebellion did not go as planned. When Adam and Eve struck out on their own, they discovered that the snake had lied and not God.

God had kept nothing good back from them. God had only protected the human leaders from all that was evil, rotten, and deadly. And now as Adam and Eve looked about God’s once good world, they saw fear, misery, and death. The very essence of their souls and the very foundation of the world had been corrupted. Adam and Eve were naked before the Lord. Try as they might, they could not undo what they had done. The kingdom of light had been replaced with the kingdom of darkness. The peace was gone. They were rebels against God.

Sadly, the corruption did not end with the reign of Adam and Eve. The first king and queen bequeathed their legacy of deadly rebellion to all of their descendants.

Take King Ahaz for example.

Isaiah Chapter 5 reports that Ahaz’s once shook with fear because an army of sword clad Syrians stood outside his castle gates. But all was not lost. God decided to help Ahaz. God told Ahaz, “Do not fear” for you will prevail. To prove that his message was not a divine prank, God gave Ahaz one genie-like wish. The king could have asked for a star, a dinosaur, or a gold nugget that weighed a million pounds. The universe was his for the asking. But instead of taking God up on his offer, Ahaz said, “No thanks.” The king wanted nothing to do with God’s salvation. He wanted to keep the rebellion going.

Despite all our iPhones, electric cars, and 85-inch flat screen TVs, we modern men and women have not progress beyond the rebellion of Ahaz. We all have spoken angrily to a child, stolen a pen or pencil, and harbored some really bad thoughts about a neighbor, family member or an ex. We have all sinned like Adam and Eve and Ahaz, believing God to be a liar. And like our first parents and all the kings and queens of old, we too will die. Though we cannot shake our fear of death, we will not ask God for help.

But God is not deterred. Humans like you and me cannot keep God from being God. Though Ahaz did not want a sign, God still gave the king a sign, a sign that would be for all people. Isaiah 5:14 reports “Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel.” God would once again walk peacefully among his people. The kingdom of heaven would be restored. The Prince of peace was coming! 

Baby Jesus: Defeats the Rebellion

On Christmas morning, God again dwelled with the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. When the baby in the manger became a man, he set out to restore the kingdom of God. He overthrew sickness, rebuked the waves, and vanquished demons. He reminded the heirs of Adam and Eve of the glories of God, preaching peace, joy, and salvation. The serpent too reappeared, seeking to persuade Jesus to follow the first Adam into rebellion. But Jesus refused the offer. The kingdom of God was advancing. A new Adam, a new king had come. Seemingly just as he was about to ascend to the throne of Jerusalem, the Jewish and Roman rulers of the day intervened and crucified Jesus, preserving the political systems of the ancient world. His followers were bewildered by the cross. Perhaps the snake had not lied. Perhaps men and women truly could contend with God and defeat the kingdom of righteousness.

But Jesus had not been defeated. Three days after dying on the cross, Jesus stepped out of the tomb. When the women went to anoint Jesus dead body, the found not Jesus but an angel who declared, “He is not here, he is risen.”

Jesus burst through the serpent’s wall which had built with the slimy bricks of sin and death. The Scriptures reveal that the Wonderful Counselor had intended to die all along so that through his sacrifice he might liberate the descendants of Adam and Eve from the kingdom of darkness. Through his birth, life, death, and resurrection, Jesus had defeated the rebellion!

All the descendants who follow Jesus through the breach are welcomed back into the kingdom of light. Shepherds, prostitutes, prideful men, sex-crazed teenagers, and angry kids are all invited to repent and believe! When Jesus died, he suffered not for his own sins but for our sins. He satisfied the wrath of God with his righteous life, exchanging his holiness for our rebellion. As we step through the hole in the wall by faith, Jesus clothes us in his righteousness and fills our hearts with his spirit, providing us with the credentials and the power to once again walk with God forever. The Prince of Peace had come!

Come Worship the King

Because of the Baby in the manger, we no longer have to follow in the footsteps of our father, Adam. Though Adam brought death to all men and women, Jesus has brought eternal life to all. As the hymn says, “you will no longer need to fear the grave. Christ was born to save.” Those who repent of their sins and believe on the cross for salvation become sons and daughters of the Mighty God and will reign with Jesus in heaven. Those who believe will find the peace that Adam and Eve had lost through their rebellion.

The question we now face this Christmas season is this: “Do we have peace with God? Have we repented of our sins and trusted in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for our salvation? Is the baby in the manger, the Prince of Peace, my savior?”

If your answer is no, I encourage you to come and repent and believe before another Christmas comes and goes.  

If the baby in the manger is your savior, rejoice with great joy! No more let sin and darkness reign! You have been delivered from the rebellion. You no longer have to live in fear for Christ dwells with you, leading you to love, gentleness, kindness, mercy, and glory! Joy to the world, the savior Comes. Let earth receive her king.

Merry Christmas!

Baby Jesus: An Exile Who Redeems Misfit Toys

Every year, the lights, sounds, and smells of Christmas convince millions of nice people sitting on the crumbling fence that marks the divide between the secular and the spiritual hop back into church for an hour or two. The sentimental Christmas carols sung in a lowly lit sanctuary on December 24 and 25 fill a special place in many a heart.

This is no new phenomenon. The famed pastor, John Calvin, noted that December 25, 1515 had brought out, “more people than I am accustomed to having at the sermon (Micah 302).” Over the centuries, these holiday services provide the mostly moral and nominally religious souls with a sense of the grandeur of God and the potential of humanity that makes gift giving, family meals, and trips to grandma’s house all that more pleasant.

For the record, allow me to assert that I am glad to have anyone at any service for any reason. If you want to attend church, I want you to visit my church family regardless of where you come from or where you were or what you want. The salvation comes through hearing. Come hear the gospel!

Who is Christmas For?

But Christmas is ultimately not about these good little girls and boys who are willing to check off the church box every so often. It is about the souls that have been kicked out of moralistic circles because they drank too much, were sexually deviant, or asked too many questions. For a time, they attempted to heed the morality of their parents and tow the Sunday school line. But at the end of the day, they could not cut it. Existential crises came. Tragedy struck. Sin prevailed. The love of their family, friends, and church evaporated, pointing them to exile. Today, these souls would be more likely to spend Christmas Eve at the bar than at the church.

Baby Jesus came for these people. In the gospel that bears his name, Matthew highlights Jesus’s connection to Abraham, David, and the deportation or exile (Matt 1:1-17). Matthew constructed his genealogy to reveal both Jesus’s historical ancestors as well as his purpose which is this: Jesus came to shower the blessings of Abraham through the Messiah’s kingly power so that exiles can know redemption. Notice Jesus did not come for the moral and those who feel comfortable attending church twice a year. He did not associate with Pharisees. He came from exiles.

The Exile Who Saves Exiles

The baby in the manger who is the God of the universe is also the heir of losers who turned all of God’s blessings into crumpled messes. His lineage contained liars, adulterers, prostitutes, and those who had committed incest. He came from a people that deserved exile so that he could redeem them from that very exile. In chapter 9 of his book, Matthew 9:12-13 declares, “But when he [Jesus] heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

This is why dirty shepherds and gentile astrologers who would have been deemed unworthy of polite Jewish society because they lacked manners or came from the wrong side of the tracks were the first to worship baby Jesus. The descendent of outcasts, came to redeem the outcasts. To borrow from the T.V. Christmas specials Jesus is a type of Rudolph, a misfit, who can save the other misfits stuck on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Friend if you have been truly bad this year committing sins that you wish to keep hidden forever, I encourage you to come to Christ. For in addition to being the son of exiles, Jesus is also the son of David. He is the great king of the universe who controlled the waves, healed the sick, and cast out demons. But he did more than that. He went and died and rose again so that all those souls who have been rejected by society because of their sin could be restored to the love of God. He offers to take the inhabitants of the island of misfit toys to eternal glory if they will repent and believe upon him.

What About?

Some who muddle about the island discount the offer of salvation because they believe they are broken beyond repair. They think that years of family history, mental illness, and vile sins cannot be easily reversed. While Jesus empathize with their pain, he knows nothing of these souls’ despair. The God who defeated demons can more than conquer the skeletons in our closets. The physician came to save the sick. And he promises to walk with the sick on their road to spiritual health, however long it takes.

And the Church?

As we prepare for our Christmas celebrations, may those of us in the church faithfully seek out those who feel exiled from society, the church, and “good” people. Though they may not know it yet, Christmas is their holiday.

Next, let’s lovingly remind those good girls and boys who have popping into church once or twice a year since the days of Calvin that they too are misfit, sinners in need of redemption. As the Psalmist said, “There is none righteous, no not one.” Not even the moral person who casually attends church can achieve the righteousness of God. Even the best of us needs the saving grace of God. Church, when we gather to sing those quintessential Christmas carols, let’s make a point to share gospel once again.

As the angels noted so long ago, the good news of great joy is for all people! Jesus Christ was born to save sinners! The exile redeems the misfit souls! Come and Worship Christ the new born king!