“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is a literary classic and this opening line has become iconic: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Many people can finish this line if you begin it for them – it was the best of times . . . . . but does anyone know the rest of the opening lines?
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. . .
For me, this idea of two realities co-existing simultaneously defines the current state of affairs for mankind. We live in an age of never before seen wealth and extravagance. (Read Ravi Zacharias letter) At the same time we are witnessing unprecedented poverty and multitudes of people who have succumbed to a sense of hopelessness that shapes their attitude and therefore their existence, into a misshapen image never intended by God.
We live in a time of spiritual dualities; we see open and inviting spirituality AND an increased hostility toward orthodox, biblical Christianity. Dare to venture into conversation on subjects of secular idolatry today and swift is the reaction. Phil Robertson found this out recently.
Even our celebration of Christmas suffers under dual realities.
Christmas in America has become for many people, Christians included, a nostalgic reminiscing of all things wholesome and happy. Consider the following television commercials that all conjure up warm, fuzzy sentiments.
Christmas is about creating memories for children – putting cookies out for Santa; or celebrating the newborn’s 1st Christmas; or maintaining the myth of Santa.
Those that know me well know that I am a collector of all things “Peanuts.” Two of the favorite books in my library are “The Gospel According to Peanuts” and “The Parables According to Peanuts.” Charles Schultz was a born-again believer who used his comic strip to share his faith.
So of course, Christmas is not the same without Linus sharing the “Christmas Story.”
This clip certainly gets us a lot closer to the real Christmas.
I have to admit I have spent more time this month than I have spent in a long watching television. Even at this increased viewing level I don’t spend a lot of time watching television but I have found myself the last couple of Sunday evenings glued to – ready? – The Hallmark Channel. (Don’t groan men – give it a try you might enjoy it – remember my advice on facials).
I am convinced that the Hallmark Channel has figured out the perfect business model and plot lines for movie making especially as it relates to Christmas in America.
There are the requisite heart tugs, emotional speed bumps, disappointing relational misunderstandings and happy resolutions where the male and female leads figure out that fate has determined their lives were meant to be spent together, all within the omnipresent “Spirit of Christmas.”
Last Sunday night for example, one of the male leads wins his true love’s heart by singing Silent Night, her favorite Christmas song. Talk about “family friendly” viewing.
Wrapped up in all of this emotion is the unmistakable presentation of Christmas in America. You know – the whole “chestnuts roasting by an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose” feel that Christmas has to it. We could call this the Americanized version of Christmas.
One author I read recently described Christmas as having a multiple personality disorder. I found her insights spot-on in most of her post.
Leslie Keeney on her blog the Ruthless Monk: Honest Musings on Faith, Reason, Theology, and Pop Culture, posted . . . .
Christmas has Multiple Personality Disorder, which makes Everything OK
December 5, 2013 by Leslie Keeney
“My life-long relationship with Christmas has gone through several phases. As a child, of course, my affection was based on waking up on Christmas morning and finding a pile of gifts under the tree. Our family was relatively poor compared to most of my friends, but seeing a small mountain of presents under a twinkling evergreen on December 25 somehow made everything OK for the rest of the year.
After I had my own kids, the meaning of Christmas changed once more. Now, not only could I wallow in my own soft-focused 8mm memories, but I could become the creator of new memories for my children. Suddenly, the act of unpacking and displaying 30-year-old holiday decorations became a cherished ritual. I became obsessed with creating traditions that my own kids would remember when they re-ran their mental home movies years from now.
But over the years, what began as a simple relationship based on glitter and packaging became more and more muddled. Jesus was part of my Christmas, certainly, but He had been combined with equal parts Santa, Charles Dickens, Frank Capra, Bing Crosby, and Charlie Brown. Whatever purely religious feelings that may have been prompted by contemplating the tiny nativity atop the piano as a child had long since been swallowed up by countless other mid-century Christmas pleasures.
I still loved my favorite holiday, but I wasn’t sure how to talk to it anymore.
In the last few years, my relationship with Christmas has changed yet again. I now have a renewed passion for celebrating Christmas as the Birth of Christ, Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. But this renewal has happened not because of some well-meaning evangelical campaign to “put Christ back in Christmas;” it has happened because I have come to realize that Christmas is not the well-adjusted adult that I had thought it was.
Christmas has multiple personality disorder and I have to cut it some slack.
The problem was that while I thought I was in a relationship with only one Christmas, I was actually in a relationship with three (possibly four, but I’ll get to that in a minute) holidays.
The first, and oldest, of the Christmases is the Pagan Christmas, from which we get our modern traditions of decorating Christmas trees, hanging mistletoe, and feasting ‘til our buttons pop. The second holiday might be called the Religious Christmas which focuses on the birth of Jesus as the promised Messiah, fulfilling God’s purpose for Israel and reconciling the world to Himself.
The third, and most recent, incarnation of this holiday dates only from about the mid-19th century and is what I call the Family Christmas. When the industrial revolution began to transform the social fabric of England and America in the mid 19th century, a new emphasis on family and children changed the entire character of the Christmas holiday. (NOT TO MENTION THE FOCUS AND “CAST OF CHARACTERS”). This cultural shift is what created the “I’ll be home for Christmas” zeitgeist that we observe today. Two World Wars since then have only solidified Christmas’ position as the ultimate celebration of hearth and home.
If there is a fourth Christmas, it is the holiday created by 20th century marketers called the Commercial Christmas. It is this fourth Christmas that, for obvious reasons, I have turned my back on completely.
It is hard for me to admit, but it is the Family Christmas that really vexes and perplexes me. From where I stand, the Family Christmas has replaced the Religious Christmas in the hearts of too many Christians. Even if I disagree with him, it’s hard to argue with a devout believer who looks me in the eye and says “Christmas is about family.” And if churches close their doors when Christmas falls on a Sunday, the reason given is invariably so that the staff can spend Christmas with their families.
At the risk of sounding like a hard-hearted Pharisee, I have to wonder which Christmas is being prioritized by telling people to stay home, open presents, and visit the grandparents?”
What I take away from this article is people have a multiple perspective disorder when it comes to understanding Christmas. I whole-heartedly agree with Keeney that believers of every stripe have adopted one or more views of the meaning of Christmas and frankly, the true meaning of Christmas is rarely even suggested.
Sadly, statistics tell us, and healthcare professionals confirm that for many people, the Christmas season is one of the most depressing times of the year. In fact, while on Bible Gateway this week looking up a reference, I noticed a banner at the top of the page that said this – “Feeling hurt or down this holiday season? Max Lucado’s “Five Days of Hope” devotional is for you.” I know they didn’t mean this in a bad way but do we really believe that a five day devotional is the answer to depression during the Christmas season?
The bigger questions are these:
- If God has declared peace on earth and goodwill toward men, why the depression?
- If the night is really silent and tranquil why the anxiety?
- If “joy to the world” should be our anthem then why the dizzying pace that ends the day after Christmas with physical collapse and an attitude of thankfulness that it’s all over for another year?
How can we speak to people with a message of hope and life during Christmas season when depression, anxiety and exhaustion seem to characterize so much of what we feel leading up to what should be a joyous and sacred day?
I believe the path forward must be a retelling of the Christmas story according to the Bible.
Many of our Christmas hymns point to the truth of Christmas even if subtly.
Consider for example the first verse of the beloved Christmas hymn “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”:
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconcile.
Joyful all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies;
With the angelic host proclaim
‘Christ is born in Bethlehem’
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King.
What excites me the most about this song is the rich theology. Of course we would expect nothing less than this from the two men who wrote the lyrics – Charles Wesley and George Whitefield and the man responsible for putting it to music, Felix Mendelssohn.
I’ve been thinking about this teaching for a few months now. A good friend of mine Pastor Doug Boquist of Lima Community Church planted the seed by asking me if I had ever given a sermon at Christmas considering the perspective of heaven, specifically a sermon that focused on Revelation 12. The thought immediately intrigued me.
As I considered how to introduce this teaching in a way that would immediately grab your attention and set the stage for our study this morning, I thought of this video clip – the “unveiling” of The Wizard of Oz –
I remember as a young boy, that the yearly showing of the Wizard of Oz was an event! This was of course before VCR’s, DVD’s, and Netflix (yes, I am a dinosaur). We would get our baths early and mom would make us popcorn and we would sit on the floor completely captivated by the story of Dorothy and Toto.
I recall my total, jaw-dropping surprise when the curtain was pulled back to reveal the Wizard of Oz was an invention! The entire persona of power and wisdom was a myth. From this singular event a catch-phrase has emerged in American conversation – “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”
Now, here is the connection this morning – what we celebrate as the Christmas story today needs to be revised and edited or more accurately recaptured. The truth is that the first nativity scene was nothing like what we believe today.
And no, I’m not interested in talking about the real birth day and month of Jesus or any of the other red herrings unbelievers toss out in an attempt to discredit the birth/existence of Jesus Christ.
A curtain has been drawn closed that obscures the real Christmas story. Therefore I want to draw your attention to the real purpose of the incarnation of God – the birth of Jesus – and what was really going on from heaven’s perspective on the glorious day that God became flesh and dwelt among us.
Here then is Christmas from heaven’s eyes – Revelation 11:15 – 12:13. It is in this passage that we see the curtain pulled back and reality laid bare before our eyes in jaw-dropping clarity. It is in this passage in a most unlikely place – Revelation – which we come to understand the reason for “joining the triumph of the skies” as Wesley and Whitefield encourage us to do.
I want you to take note of at least 5 points about the Christmas story from heaven’s perspective. I’ll give you the first two now.
- There is no manger; there are no shepherds or wise men, no cattle lowing (which by the way is an old fashion way of saying they were not mooing). The “Nativity” from heaven’s perspective had 3 central figures – Israel, Jesus Christ, and Satan. When you understand this, you are on the way to grasping the true significance of Christmas.
- The birth of Jesus was God’s initial thrust into time and space to destroy the works of Satan and this is why we see the “dragon” attempting to destroy Jesus.
Why would our enemy go to such great lengths to destroy Jesus Christ? He knew the “end game” if you will, of God the Father. It had been declared to him all the way back in Genesis in the presence of Adam and Eve – Genesis 3:15 – “He (Jesus) shall bruise you (Satan) on the head.” This Jesus accomplished on the cross and by His resurrection.
So, Satan attempted to destroy Jesus Christ at His birth through his proxy Herod, in order to prevent God the Father from carrying out His decree. Having failed in that effort, Satan has continued to attack Israel through the years by inciting countless others including Pharaoh, Haman, Hitler and the modern-day jihadist Ishmaelites. Most grievous to me however, are the ill-informed Christians who revile Israel and claim God’s eternal promises to Israel as their own (I’ll save further comments on that subject for a future teaching).
While myriad movies and television specials all give their slant on the purpose and meaning of Christmas, the Bible tells us plainly why Jesus Christ was born.
We read this in 1 John 3:8 – “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.”
And what are the “works of the devil” you ask?
We can summarize the works of the devil in one word – lawlessness. Another word for that is sin. Look with me at 1 John 3:4 and follow John’s thought process through to verse 11. Do you see the major point John is making? Sin is lawlessness and lawlessness is part of our natures as human beings. What makes us children of God, what distinguishes us from the world of humanity in which we live is that we have been set free from lawlessness as a defining characteristic.
You might be asking “but how does Jesus do that?” I call your attention to an earlier chapter in the same book – 1 John 2:2 – “He (Jesus) Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but for those of the whole world.” The NT word is from the Greek “hilasmos” meaning a merciful remitting of sin while the OT Hebrew is “kopher” meaning a covering and was closely related to the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant. Thus over time the idea of propitiation as a covering for our sin, a reconciling of man to his Creator, and a remitting of the guilt and penalty came into view.
Jesus satisfies God the Father’s holiness and righteousness in relation to the penalty of sin (death) for us. Notice that Jesus is the “righteous One” in 1 John 2:1 – He knew no sin so that He could be our sin-bearer. The meaning of Christmas then brothers and sisters is that God came down to earth intentionally to sacrifice Himself that we might escape the penalty of lawlessness – which is death (which biblically speaking is eternal separation from the hope and peace of God).
So, Christmas is God sending His Son on a mission to redeem fallen mankind; it was a mission intentionally designed to result in the execution of Jesus.
And this raises a third point to understand about Christmas.
3. Jesus’ birth was an announcement to all of creation that God would one day set right that which had been corrupted by sin.
We see this in Revelation 12:5 – In the ascension Jesus promised two things (1) He was going to prepare a place for us (2) He would come again to receive us to Himself.
We read this in the Apostle John’s gospel:
- Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. John 14:1-3
And the fourth point is:
4. Jesus’ birth was God’s invitation to become reconciled to Him through the Son.
God has provided the way to be transformed from rebel to redeemed, from bondage to depression, anxiety and exhaustion to freedom to rest in the comfort and peace of our Creator. His name is Jesus and He calls you to Himself today.
The last verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is significant for our focus today and a fitting place to encourage you to consider the claims of Jesus.
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray!
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us to-day.
We hear the Christmas angels,
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!
Here’s my fifth and final point this morning – again I call your attention to Rev 12:5. Notice that John sees that Jesus was born to rule – “rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” This speaks of the guarantee of the return of Jesus Christ to this earth for His people and for the final destruction of Satan.
Jesus Christ has won the victory but we are still at war brethren. The day is rapidly approaching when evil will be judged. The Bible says that one day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord.
The Christmas story takes us to the cross where God redeemed His creation and then to the glories of a righteous King who is coming again. When we celebrate Christmas from this day forward may it be with the anticipation of Jesus’ soon return. When we do that, the things we focus on during this season will change and we will see the great opportunities we have to share this message of great hope.
HARK THE HERALD ANGELS SING (LAST VERSE)
Hail, the heaven-born Prince of peace!
Hail the Son of righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
Glory to the newborn King.
A clear conscience, rest, hope and an anxiety free Christmas is yours when you know the real reason for Jesus’ birth. Let us celebrate our great King and go tell that on the mountain!