Read an Excerpt
Christmas Is Not Your Birthday
Experience The Joy of Living and Giving Like Jesus
By Mike Slaughter
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
EXPECT A MIRACLE
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)
What does God look like? How would you recognize God if or when God showed up?
Artists have attempted to depict God's image in countless ways throughout the millennia, whereas others have deemed it blasphemous to do so. Centuries before Jesus' birth the ancient prophets spoke of the coming of a messiah deliverer, who would be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end. (Isaiah 9:6-7)
But this messiah king would also know suffering and rejection (Isaiah 54). His mission would clearly prioritize the poor and the marginalized (Isaiah 61:1-8).
Expectations of what this messiah would be like and look like, however, were quite diverse and even contradictory. Some expected a worldly political revolutionary who would restore the glory days of the Davidic Kingdom, whereas others visualized a messiah who represented the Greek ideal of focusing totally on the afterlife.
What is your mental picture of God when you pray? A critical, condemning judge or a merciful, loving parent? A God who favors some over others or a God who loves all creation and all people who make up this incredible planet? Do you picture a savior who is concerned only with saving people for life after death, or one who is actively engaged in restoring and renewing devastated places? Do you believe that God always rewards obedience with material wealth and physical health or that God remains present with us in poverty, pain, and suffering?
Jesus was not what most folks expected. When you think about God, adjectives like powerful, majestic, and almighty tend to come to mind. But Jesus did not come to the earth with any air of worldly wealth or majestic power. On the contrary, everything about Jesus' life stood in stark contrast to worldly priorities and values. He arrived on the scene not in strength but in weakness. He was born a Palestinian Jew, into a community of marginalized, oppressed people, spending his early years as a refugee in Africa, eluding political genocide. His formative years were spent in a nondescript village, as a member of an ordinary working-class family.
As a man, he lived in tension with the organized religious system. He resisted the world's obsessions with wealth, pleasure, power, and recognition. He identified with the weak and powerless, the widow and the orphan. He did not condemn but defended the sinner. So what does God look like? Like Jesus! Jesus was the embodiment of God's values and priorities. He is Immanuel, "God with us." In Jesus, we see not only the face of God but also the fullness of his humanity, who you and I are created to be. I can believe in a God who looks like Jesus!
Santa Claus Jesus
Too often, however, we view God like Santa Claus—a genie in a bottle, here to fulfill three wishes. All we have to do is name it and claim it, believe it and receive it! We have created this Santa Claus Jesus in our own image, a golden-calf messiah who promises to fulfill all our earthly wants and wishes, an idol of consumption who supports the human quest for meaning and purpose in material things outside of a relationship with God.
Think about the way we describe Santa: "He sees you when you're sleeping.... He knows if you've been bad or good!" Our popular notions of Santa Claus reflect the way we have reduced God to a mythical watchdog who judges our niceness or naughtiness and metes out rewards and punishments accordingly.
This is not the God we see in Jesus. Jesus was not the messiah most people were expecting and hoping for. He did not come shimmying down the chimney bearing gifts for good boys and girls.
God's gifts cannot fit in a stocking, but must be received in our hearts. Says Simon Tugwell in his book Prayer:
If we keep clamoring for things we want from God, we may often find ourselves disappointed, because we have forgotten the weakness of God and what we may call the poverty of God. We had thought of God as the dispenser of all the good things we would possibly desire; but in a very real sense, God has nothing to give at all except himself.
The picture that you have of God has everything to do with the shaping of your faith and values. If your picture of God is distorted, your life perspective will be skewed. With this faulty image of Jesus as magical gift-giver, then, it's no wonder our expectations of the Christmas season have become distorted. God doesn't do magic. Magic is an illusion, meant for entertainment and not for transformation. God came to work miracles in our broken world.
The ideal, magical Christmas experience is unattainable. We stress ourselves out and even go into debt to create that warm and fuzzy feeling both for our families and ourselves. But that feeling doesn't last. The real meaning of Christmas gets lost in the chaotic clutter of shopping, spending, escalating debt, making exhausting preparations, and building stacks of gifts that most of us don't need or will not ever use. I still find shirts in my closet that I have never worn, given to me who knows how many Christmases ago. In the chaos of the holiday season, we miss the true gift of Immanuel, God with us.
Alan and Deb Hirsch point out in their book Untamed:
Of all the ways culture influences the church, nothing has had more of an impact on us than that of a consumerist vision of society. We have all been impacted by the powerful experience of society that is preoccupied with the acquisition of consumer goods. From good old Santa Claus (a religious symbol co-opted to disciple children in thorough-going materialism from early childhood on) to the complete ubiquity of niche marketing, we are daily being nurtured in the worldview generated by late capitalism of the twenty-first century—consumerism.
The idol of consumerism is one of the hardest to topple. John Wesley identified the wallet as the last thing to be converted in a person's life, and Jesus spoke more about money and materialism than any other single topic except the kingdom of God. "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money" (Matthew 6:24).
Preparing for God's Miracle
Christmas is the celebration of a miracle, but we've edged the miracle worker out of his own birthday. It is time to take it back by planning new traditions that focus on Jesus' presence, rather than the often-forgettable presents we expect to receive.
The dictionary defines miracle as "a visible interruption of the laws of nature, understood only by divine intervention and often accompanied by a miracle worker." In other words, a miracle is a unique event in the world that God does through people like you and me. That's right—you are God's miracle worker! You are God's means to effect change in your world. God wants to birth a miracle through you.
You don't feel qualified, you say? You lack the necessary knowledge, or have doubts and uncertainties? "Surely there must be someone more worthy and qualified," you protest. Don't sweat it. God doesn't need your ability. God will work the miracle through you—all God needs is your availability and commitment to act.
Jesus said, "Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him" (John 7:38). Jesus was speaking of the Holy Spirit. The same Holy Spirit that conceived the miracle in Mary's womb indwells every devoted follower of Jesus. In other words, every work of God is conceived in the heart of a disciple, grows in conviction and clarity of vision, and then is delivered through God's intended action, or more simply, God births miracles through ordinary people.
Jesus the messiah was ordinary, too. "He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, / nothing in his appearance that we should desire him," said the prophet Isaiah.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Does that sound like the profile of a world-movement leader to you?
Most of us can relate to being ordinary. From the time we are small children we become cruelly proficient in developing a social pecking order. Who's cool, smart, and beautiful—and who's not—is often determined in the first weeks of kindergarten, as are the natural leader and the class clown. Where do we find Jesus in the pecking order? In a place of low esteem. He came from a socioeconomic class that was so poor, even his own people rejected him. Nazareth was an insignificant village off the beaten path, an isolated community that would not have exposed Jesus to a breadth of educational, cultural, or religious experiences. This is why people questioned the possibility of Jesus' messianic office: "He can't be the messiah. What good thing could come out of Nazareth?"
Jesus was in no way glamorous looking, and probably pretty well-worn for his relatively young age. While working in refugee camps in Darfur, I was taken aback by the toll that poverty takes on the aging process, often mistaking people in their thirties for being in their fifties. Likewise, in the eighth chapter of John we read that Jesus, around age thirty, was often mistaken for a person closer to fifty. He would have never made People magazine's list of the fifty most beautiful people or been listed in the high-school yearbook as most likely to do anything.
Wow, I can believe in a God who looks like Jesus! I can follow a God who looks like Jesus! And I know that a God who looks like Jesus can use even me!
Throughout Scripture, God chose ordinary, unqualified people through whom to do miracles: the ineloquent Moses, the youngest child David, and the barren Elizabeth. And, of course, Mary. Luke records the words from what has become known as Mary's song:
"My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant."
The Greek word for humble means "low in situation, poor, and depressed." Mary came from a very common family, wasn't married, lacked formal education, and did not have the credentials to be a religious leader. What does that say about God's choices and perspective on what it means to be a beautiful and influential person?
Mother Teresa was among the most influential people of our era. Nothing about her physical stature could be considered beautiful or powerful, yet God chose this little Albanian woman to be one of the most powerful representations of Jesus and the resurrection that this generation has seen.
Jesus said, "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses" (Acts 1:8). The kind of power that Jesus is talking about is not a power of position, wealth, or prestige. The power of Immanuel is the power to create change in the world through God's action in your life. However, the world is looking for the elaborate, the expensive, and the extraordinary, which is why we miss Jesus. We look for the extraordinary when God uses the ordinary. And the majority of us are ordinary people!
Over the last several years, I have had the privilege of returning to my home high school to do assemblies on leadership and to talk about Ginghamsburg Church's work in Darfur. The students at North College Hill High School in Cincinnati have raised more than $35,000 to build kindergartens in Darfur. What's so amazing about this whole experience is the fact that I am continually invited back to this place where I was once held in very low esteem. I finished my junior year with four Fs and a D–. I was not proficient in academics or athletics. My class ranking was 138 out of 152 (not to mention there were only 144 students by the end of the year, as 8 had dropped out).
Every year, despite my lackluster performance as a juvenile, I am invited back to the same place and think, "Yep, there's the corner I sat in for a month in second grade" or "There's the desk (and it's the same one from over 40 years ago) in the principal's office where I sat before being paddled." Every year, I revisit those places where I was shamed and scorned.
But something happened in 1969: Immanuel—God with me—showed up and awakened in me God's miracle! "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'" (Jeremiah 29:11). In the same way that Jesus once sent his angels to make that announcement to Mary, Jesus comes to ordinary people today to use us for God's purpose. We must only be willing to be used.
Are You Willing to Pay the Price?
Grace may be free, but it is never cheap. Miracles come at a cost. Can you imagine the ostracism and rejection that Mary experienced as an unwed teenager? Becoming pregnant with the messiah was most definitely not the miracle that she had been hoping for. "Is this what it means to receive God's favor?" she must have wondered. And what about Joseph? Do you think he ever had doubts about the origins of Mary's pregnancy?
At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of the Messiah who was born not only to die sacrificially for us but also to show us how to live sacrificially. Sacrifice is not a pleasant word for most of us. Just the idea of it can make us uncomfortable. So it's not surprising that, when all is said and done, most folks would rather have a holly, jolly Christmas than to give themselves as a "womb" for an honest-to-God Christmas miracle.
I received an e-mail several years ago from a person unhappy with the way our Christmas services at Ginghamsburg focused on our work with the Sudan Project. His response really shows how distorted Christians' view of Christmas has become:
Dear Mr. Slaughter: Thank you for allowing my family to enjoy the great Christmas services at your church over the last many years. You are a gifted speaker I greatly enjoy listening to. We meet there as a family from all over the area. I am sorry to say that although I understand the great work that needs to be done in Darfur and the work that you have already accomplished, I simply cannot take another African Christmas. I hope this doesn't sound harsh, but our Christmas celebration as a family is not limited to Africa year after year. So this year we will gather in hopes of finding a new worship spot more traditional to the Christmas we know.
How biblical is the "Christmas we know"? Many Christmas traditions that we hold as Christian are really mixtures of traditions: start with a little biblical truth, blend with some eighteenth-century Victorian practices, and add a double shot of Santa theology (don't hold the whipped cream, please). For example, how many confuse "The Night Before Christmas" with the real Christmas story?
Even our Christmas hymns present a sanitized version of a rather traumatic event: "The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes / but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes." Who can relate to the experience of having a newborn who never cried?
The real Christmas was a snapshot of poverty and anxiety, not feel-good warm fuzzies. But I don't blame that former member for his misunderstanding, because we all have grown up with a distorted, acculturated picture of a feel-good Santa Claus Jesus, which has insulated us from God's heart concerning injustice and suffering in the world.
Can't deal with another African Christmas? Think about this: every four seconds, a child dies somewhere in the world from a hunger-related cause. Let's also not forget that the holy family took flight to Egypt in the face of government-initiated genocide. Jesus spent many formative months in his early childhood as an African refugee. Our tradition tells us that it was a silent night where all was calm and all was bright, but I am not sure that is how Mary and Joseph would have described the experience from their end.
The message of Christmas is about a sacrificial gift. It is easy to feel excited about a newborn warmly wrapped in a manger bed of straw. This Jesus of the cradle poses no threat to our lifestyle and cultural ideologies. But the cradle comes with a cost. You cannot separate the cradle from the cross! The cross is the center of the Christian message. The Apostle Paul put it this way: "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection," and he added, "and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings" (Philippians 3:10). Jesus, who calls us to follow in the way of the cross, challenges every tradition and value that we hold to be truth. Miracles do not appear out of thin air, like magic. You cannot receive God's miracle unless you are ready and willing to pay the cost.
All of us, to a certain extent, find ways to avoid pain and discomfort. I delay making appointments for my annual checkup because having my blood drawn makes me queasy. We become masters of minimizing risk and maximizing comfort.
Not long ago, I ran into a friend of mine who is about my age and has retired to Florida after a very successful corporate career. He was giving me a hard time about still having to work. I can't imagine not working, since we are put on this earth to be co-creators with God. Why has comfortable retirement become the life goal for so many? I asked my friend what he did in all his spare time.
"Oh man, Mike, I get to play golf every day, and my wife and I walk the beach and collect shells."
Excerpted from Christmas Is Not Your Birthday by Mike Slaughter. Copyright © 2011 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.