Now that Christmas Day has come and gone, it is fitting to consider: Is Christmas merely a passing holiday that flits into and out of our lives every 365 days? Or does it leave any kind of lasting impact upon us?
If Christmas is merely a passing holiday that fills a couple weeks of our lives in a state of panic each year, that leaves us feeling pressured and burdened to do too many things in too short a time, that leaves us in debt and overweight when it is over, I question why we continue to subject ourselves to it each year.
But if the message of Christmas is true—that God so loves the world that He became one of us in a manger to live among us, revealing God’s love and truth to us, then dying for us to overcome sin and guilt and death—then we should hope and expect Christmas to change our lives for the good!
The Civil Rights leader, Howard Thurman, who greatly influenced Martin Luther King, Jr., reminds us that the true honoring of Christmas extends far beyond the festivities of December 24 and 25. He writes:
When the song of the angels is silent
When the star in the sky is gone
When the kings and princes are home
When the shepherds are again tending their sheep
When the manger is darkened and still
The work of Christmas begins…
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To rebuild the nations
To bring peace among people
To befriend the lonely
To release the prisoner
To make music in the heart.
If the One who was born in Bethlehem has been born in our hearts, we should expect His love and goodness to live out of us; we should expect that the love and joy and hope and good He brought to the world when He walked the roads of Judea to come to others through us now. If Christmas is more than just a holiday, then may the reality of Jesus’ birth—the “work of Christmas”—live on in us and through us.
The element of hope is a necessity in life.
The great novelist Pearl Buck commented, “To eat bread without hope is still slowly to starve to death.”
Someone else observed, “We can live forty days without food, eight days without water, four minutes without air, but only a few seconds without hope.”
Hope is a necessity to life.
The early Christians faced severe persecution. Some were arrested for their faith. Some were tortured. Some were martyred. Nearly all of them faced some form of oppression against them for their faith. During the reign of Nero persecution intensified sharply. Nero had some Christians sewn up in the skins of wild beasts and thrown to the dogs. He had other Christians dressed in shirts made stiff with wax, fixed to axletrees, and set on fire in his gardens to illuminate them at night. Several succeeding emperors continued persecution against early Christians, ordering followers of Christ to be beaten, or flayed, or to have hot tar poured on their heads, or to be thrown into boiling water, or to have their heads cut.
But into the midst of this persecution, even while he was being held captive on the prison island of Patmos, the apostle John wrote a letter to fellow persecuted believers in Asia Minor, assuring them that the destiny of the world was in the hands of Jesus Christ who would come back and settle all matters on earth righteously. At the close of the book of Revelation, John described Jesus as “the bright Morning Star” (Revelation 22:16).
What is “the bright Morning Star?
The “bright Morning Star” is the announcer that the night is about to end and day is about to begin. On a long dark night, the appearance of the morning star means daybreak is imminent.
The “bright Morning Star” is the bringer of hope to weary people in a troubled world.
That’s who Jesus is. He is the Bringer of hope to weary people in a troubled world.
Jay Akkerman reports, “Frank Capra, who directed It’s a Wonderful Life, was asked years ago about the central message of his classic film. After thinking a few moments, Capra responded, ‘I believe the real message of It’s a Wonderful Life is this: that under the sun, nothing is insignificant to God.’”
That’s the Biblical message of Christmas: God became one of us as a baby in a manger because no one on earth is insignificant to Him.
That’s the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection: Jesus died for us, carrying our sins upon His soul, because no one here is insignificant to Him.
That’s the message of the Holy Spirit: God chooses to send His Spirit to live within us because no one is insignificant to Him.
That’s the message of the book of Revelation: Christ will come back to set all things to right because no one here is insignificant to God.
That’s the message of Revelation 22:16: Jesus is “the bright Morning Star;” He is the Bringer of hope to weary people in a troubled world.
When Jesus was born, Herod ruled Judea with an iron fist. He was a megalomaniac, anxious to assert his power and to hold onto prominence. An example of how full of himself he was: As his death approached, Herod gave orders for several prominent citizens of Israel to be arrested, with instructions for them to be executed as soon as he died. Herod feared that the nation would celebrate at the news of his death; the execution of prominent citizens would guarantee that people would weep at his death.
Into that world came the promise of the birth of a new king—a different kind of king!
When Mary visited her cousin, Elizabeth, she sang out her praise to the God who had authority over the rulers of this earth: “For the Mighty One has done great things for me; and holy is His name….He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty-handed” (Luke 1:49 & 52-53).
Herod tried his best to get rid of Jesus, because he did not want any other king to dislodge him. But one of the great messages of Christmas is that no ruler can usurp God, and no power can keep God out.
As the early church began to expand into the ancient world, the worship of the emperor was being pushed throughout the Roman Empire. At the entrance of the emperor in triumphal processions, citizens of Rome would cry out, “Worthy art thou!” The emperors took for themselves the title, “Lord of lords and king of kings.” Domitian (81-96 A.D.) went so far as to require that he be introduced as “Our lord and god.”
Into that world the apostle John sent a letter to seven churches in Asia Minor in which the proclamation is made that Jesus is the One who is “KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” (Revelation 19:16). Emperors might make that boast, but the emphasis of the entire book of Revelation is that there is only One who wields true authority over this earth, and that One is the baby who was born in Bethlehem who died for us on a cross and who will come again to hold our destiny in His hands.
What John wanted to make clear to early believers who were being severely persecuted for their faith was that they need not fear what the kings of this earth might do to them for their eternal destiny was held safely and securely by the King who holds authority over every ruler and power forever!
At times, we may fear happenings or powers in this world, but we don’t need to fear them too much because the One who is truly King of kings and Lord of lords, holds us safely and securely in His care!
I grew up with a father who was busy and preoccupied, working his regular job, maintaining a busy side-profession as a musician, pursuing a graduate degree, and playing tennis avidly. He was a good person and competent in many skills, but had little time to play with me or listen to me. I grew up with the idea that fathers were good and competent but preoccupied with more important things than children. (It was a neighbor rather than my father who took the time to hit fly balls to us in the street.)
I carried that same perspective about God as my Father when I became a Christian. I believed my heavenly Father was good and competent, but I also believed God had more important things to care about than me. Without realizing what I was doing, I formulated in my mind and heart an image of God as distant and preoccupied. In fact, I looked around my office one day and noticed that the pictures I had of Jesus all reinforced the same perspective. I had a picture of Jesus looking down on us from heaven with a rather disinterested look on His face. I had a picture of Jesus hanging on the cross doing a wonderful thing in giving His life for us, but in the picture He was removed and distant from me. I had pictures in my office of my family and me together, but I had no picture of Jesus in any kind of close connection with others.
There was something in my vision of God that was warped! That ‘warp’ originated in the way I was raised; it did not originate in Scripture. Scripture, indeed, is very deliberate in presenting a view of God in intimate relationship with us.
One such view of God’s intimate relationship with us is presented in Revelation 7:15, where we are told, “He who sits on the throne will spread His tent over them.”
We appreciate the concept here that God will provide shelter to us, that God will protect us from the elements as a good “tent” will do.
Those who know the Old Testament well appreciate the connection to how the glory of God hovering above the Israelites was like a tent over them while they wandered through the desert for 40 years.
Those who know Jewish culture find even greater significance to the promise that God will spread His tent over us.
When a Jewish boy is circumcised on the eighth day of his life, all who have gathered for his circumcision celebration speak a blessing over him that asks for three things in his life: “Just as he has entered into the Covenant, so may he enter into Torah, into the chuppah, and into good deeds.”
The “chuppah” is a wedding canopy, or a “tent.” When a baby boy is welcomed into the Jewish covenant, all who celebrate his birth pray that he will embrace God’s Law, and do good deeds, and enter into the joy of marrying a woman he loves and who loves him. Revelation 7:15 offers this picture when speaking of our relationship with God! Revelation 7:15 describes God spreading His “chuppah” over us, and bringing us into a love that is even deeper and more joyous and lasting longer than the greatest marriage earth has ever known.
The God portrayed to us in Revelation 7:15 is not a distant or preoccupied God but a God of intimate love for us! No wonder Revelation 7:17 can go on to promise that the kind of relationship with God in which He spreads His tent over us “will lead them to springs of living water” where “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes”!
On what basis do we evaluate the greatness of a king? I googled “greatest kings” and came upon a list of the “Top Ten Greatest Monarchs.” Here is the list, and part of the rationale for their inclusion:
10: Suleiman the Magnificent, ruler of the Ottoman Empire for 69 years, from 1494-1566. “During his rule, the Ottoman Empire encompassed most of the Middle East, Southeastern Europe and Rhodes.”
9: James I of England. “Under his rule, the two kingdoms [England & Scotland] were united.”
8: John III of Poland-Lithuania, also known as the Lion of Lehistan. He “was a military and political genius…. John became known as the Lion of Lehistan after his victory against the Turks in the Battle of Vienna.”
7: Meiji of Japan: “When Meiji became Emperor of Japan [in 1881] at the age of 14, Japan was a primitive and isolated country. By the end of his reign, Japan was an industrial powerhouse. Meiji was a key player in making Japan a major world superpower.”
6: Gustav II Adolf of Sweden: “During his reign, Sweden became a major European power. Gustav II Adolf led his Protestant army against the Catholic armies of France and Spain. After his death in battle, Sweden became known as a military powerhouse.”
5: Augustus of Rome: “Augustus Caesar ruled as the Emperor of Rome for 41 years. During this time, Augustus improved the infrastructure and military of Rome.”
4: Cyrus II of Persia: He “ruled Persia for 30 years. During his reign, the Persian Empire encompassed much of the Middle East, including Iran, Israel and Mesopotamia.”
3: Frederick II of Prussia, Frederick the Great: He “ruled Prussia for 46 years. During his reign, the borders of Prussia expanded to encompass West Prussia and Silesia. Under his reign, the infrastructure, military and bureaucratic process of Prussia was greatly improved.”
2: Queen Victoria, ruler of the United Kingdom for 67 years: “During her reign, the British Empire expanded to encompass one quarter of the land on the Earth, making it the largest empire ever.”
1: Louis XIV of France, the “Sun King”: “Under his reign, France became the most powerful country in Europe. Louis ended feudalism in France and modernized the country…. Louis believed strongly in the divine right of kings, saying that he was the sun and that his courtiers and France should revolve around him like planets.”
Another list began with Adolph Hitler and ended with Genghis Khan, “the most brutal emperor in the history of world.”
According to popular readings of history, what is it that makes a ruler great?
Most of these rulers are considered to have been great because of how they accumulated power and/or wielded authority. They were considered great because of how they conquered other people.
In Revelation 5, John sees a scroll that is sealed with seven seals. No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth is able to open the book, so John begins to weep. One of the elders tells John to stop weeping for the Lion has overcome and will open the book.
At this point it is easy for us to picture other lion-like rulers who have overcome. It is easy for us to have in mind a conquering king like Suleiman the Magnificent or the Lion of Lehistan or Genghis Khan. But as John looks around for this great, conquering Lion, He sees “a Lamb standing as if slain.”
We tend to put our hope in kings whose strength and power are proved by the way in which they conquer others. But the picture we are given in Revelation is of the Lion who is the Lamb who was slain.
What we discover about Jesus in this verse and in many other verses is that His greatness comes not by stepping on others but by laying down His life for us. He is the Lion, the powerful King, and He is the Lamb, the sacrifice for our sins. The elders and angels fall before Him in worship, singing out His praise because He “was slain.”
The greatness of Christ is not just His power (His Lion-like qualities), but also His self-sacrificing love for us (that He is the Lamb who was slain)!