Tis the season when “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls” find their way back into the public consciousness right alongside musty manger scenes. Tis the season when the biblical story’s long-expected arrival is strangely intermingled with the wider culture’s celebration of the toys and goodies on Santa’s sleigh. For the Christian, this season brings great opportunity; there aren’t many times in the calendar year when the meaning of Jesus’s entry into the world can be so easily brought up in conversation.
Yet the season also brings warning. If the Christian and the church aren’t careful, the very event that caused a host of mighty angels to appear before lowly shepherds can start to seem just as make-believe as the local Santa in the shopping mall.
Here are a few suggestions to guard your and your church’s witness this season.
1. Don’t treat the story as if it is simply cute.
One of the great temptations for Christians and churches is to present the incarnation of our Lord Jesus as if it were nothing more than a sweet story meant to elicit a heartwarming sigh from the wider world. But the Bible does not give us that option. Instead, the coming of Christ proclaims massive truths to the world concerning its own desperate sinful state, God’s remarkable grace in launching a rescue plan for sinners, and the necessity to respond to him in repentance and faith.
The baby who lay in the manger “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3). When we present this story to unbelieving friends and family, then, the worst service we can offer them is to treat it as one more sweet story in the pantheon of celebrated cultural fables.
2. Dive beneath a cursory understanding of the incarnation.
While many today might primarily wrestle with the divinity of Jesus, in the early church his humanity was often at stake. From Docetism to Apollinarianism, brothers and sisters in the first centuries of Christian history fought to maintain the doctrine of Jesus’s full humanity. In fact, it was so important that John included the following “test” in his first letter: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already” (1 John 4:2–3). The apostle actually regards denial of Jesus’s full humanity as evidence of the spirit of the antichrist.
Needless to say, we should labor to ensure we grasp and confess why “he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). The cradle leads to the cross, and we should be careful that when we speak of the former we get to the latter. The baby in the manger came to be the crucified Son of God; our treatment of the incarnation should reflect such joyful seriousness.
3. Don’t treat the incarnation as if it were a once-a-year doctrine.
While Santa and his sleigh make their way into the wider culture once a year, that should never be the case for the incarnation in the life of the Christian. The fact that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) has as much life and joy to give in July as it does in December. The One whose creatures tragically rebelled and merited his curse actually came into our world to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found. The truth packed in that reality will stir a believer’s affections for Christ as much in March as on the night before Christmas. To treat this doctrine as if it only matters once a year fails to grasp and delight in all the Savior was for us on earth and all he is for us now in heaven.
While this is perhaps the one month of the year when the wider world pays attention to this great story, it is the church’s story every month of every year until he returns. As you and your church consider and proclaim “the Christmas story” this holiday season, do so with all the serious joy the incarnation demands. There is no other reality, no other truth that can ultimately hold or give joy . . . to the world.