The most influential person in history wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He didn’t grow up in the lap of luxury banking on some family fortune. He wasn’t educated by the elite, groomed by the fashionistas, manicured by the media or mentored by the successful. His birth made no headlines. His biography was brief.
And yet this man remains the most quoted, respected, honored and successful person in history. He is loved by celebrities, kings, presidents, potentates, tycoons, poets and academics. His legacy is felt in the minstrel’s music, the painter’s brush and the poet’s line. All other great men and women pale in comparison to this one single life.
This influential leader was born in a relative’s outbuilding in a small, obscure town under foreign oppression. His desperately poor parents were troubled by scandal and tortured by a political paranoid. They even relocated temporarily to another continent to escape death. The boy grew up in a sketchy town widely known as the butt of a joke, hanging with people considered ignorant, average and common.
Maybe that’s why the hoi polloi loved him. He gave them help and hope, love and liberty, respect and restoration. He was their type of guy. Working class. Middle class. Redneck and blue collar.
Surprisingly, this influential teacher was largely rejected. Many in his own family avoided him. His peers criticized him while opponents attacked him. Ultimately, he was deserted by even his closest friends. He’s not what anyone expected. He didn’t fit their mold. He didn’t work their system. He didn’t play by their rules. He never labored abroad, earned a degree, won awards or wrote a book. He never sought fame, power or riches. Most of his influence and impact would happen after he was gone.
In life he proved a controversial failure. He never built a successful brand or business, nor owned land or property. His resume was a litany of losses. His references suspect. His authority questioned. His ideas challenged. Thousands abandoned him. He angered the religious establishment, confused the governmental powers, discouraged the seekers and disappointed his disciples. He was labeled a loose cannon, rebel and heretic. He was called a liar, deceiver and fool. Even his closest followers denied, doubted and betrayed him. Unlike other revolutionaries he never raised his voice or the sword, used threats or bribes, censored critics or complainers. This man of sorrows, with a life tattooed by failure and rejection, was charged for crimes he didn’t commit, sentenced to a death he didn’t deserve and executed by those he didn’t offend.
And yet, he still changed the world forever.
On his deathbed, only a scattered few paid their respects. He died in his prime…mostly alone, surprisingly despised and roundly rejected. He was crowned with thorns, nailed naked to wood and hung beside crooks. He was smeared, sneered and speared, then hastily buried in a borrowed tomb. His only property left to gamblers. The few that still followed locked themselves behind doors, fearing they were next.
Jesus did everything wrong. He loved the wrong people. He taught the wrong things. He performed miracles on the wrong day. He picked the wrong disciples. He angered the wrong powers. He was born into the wrong family, under the wrong circumstances, and grew up in the wrong place. He had the wrong education, the wrong plans and suffered a wrong ending.
And yet every wrong made it all right.
After all, you can’t keep a good man down…especially if He’s more than a man.
Jesus did what no man can do: He rose from the dead. In doing so, he proved His Divinity. He also revealed the last can arrive first, the least can end greatest, the insignificant can become important, the weak can be strong, the small can grow tall, the old can be new, the wrong can be right and the dead can live. He showed you don’t need breaks, luck, license or blessing. You don’t need the right name, face, place, race or gender. You don’t need to build a media empire, carve a social standing or amass a business fortune. You don’t need the biggest church, the largest budget, the most programs, the best facilities or the sharpest staff. You don’t need an agent, promoter or publicist. You don’t need magic tricks, incentive plans, investment strategies or clever programming.
You just need to follow this Man. And that’s not easy. You might lose everything. You might be hated, mocked or criticized. You might even get crucified.
It’s no wonder that two thousand years later Jesus the Christ remains the most influential, respected and loved person. Everyone knows his name, even if they utter it in curse. His disciples cover the planet. His teachings blanket the world. His impact surrounds the earth. Jesus’ birth and death are revered holidays. We mark history by his life. We quote his sayings, reproduce his teachings and model his behavior. His followers have erected hospitals, shelters, and food banks. They’ve started countless missions, ministries and movements in His Name.
Nobody ever did what this Galilean guru did. Nobody will do it ever again.
His solitary life changed everything. And so can you.
Perhaps you feel like a failure. Perhaps you are deeply wounded. Perhaps you are weak, sick or dying. Perhaps you doubt God’s goodness and power. Perhaps you question Jesus’ love and grace. Perhaps you’re addicted, victimized or abused. Perhaps you feel lost, forgotten or hopeless. Perhaps you wonder how you’ll survive another day or next year.
Life is hard. Thankfully, Jesus came to earth to show us how to LIVE.
And this Messiah modeled success in failure, confidence despite fear, victory over temptation, joy within tragedy, and life from death. By all human standards, Jesus should be at best a historical footnote. A nice story of a good guy who tried hard and failed.
But the Christmas gospel is more than a nice story, it’s a testament to how Divine Power mixes with human frailty, fault and failure. It’s about angels on high and dirty shepherds, a Bethlehem star and a stable of manure and hay, and Holy God inhabiting infant flesh. It’s about LIFE abundant. The real good news is that Jesus didn’t come to make you good or nice or religious. He came to bring you LIFE no matter what.
No matter where you started. No matter where you are now. No matter where you’re going.
No matter what…Life! And life beyond measure…a wonderful life!
No doubt the real reason wisemen still seek Him.
The Nativity Story is legendary. Most USAmericans have heard it, or variations of it. Unfortunately, too often our recollection doesn’t come from Scripture but traditional carols. We Three Kings of Orient Are. Silent Night. O Little Town of Bethlehem. Away in a Manger. In general, like the legend of Santa Claus, many speculative and even erroneous ideas have sprouted.
One of the interesting (and wrong) legends about Jesus’ birth is there was “no room in the inn.” It’s not true, largely due to a terrible mistranslation of the original Greek. The word Luke employs for “inn” (kataluma) is the SAME word he uses to describe the “upper” or “guest” room where his disciples enjoyed their “last supper” together (Luke 2:7; 22:11). Luke clearly uses a different Greek word for “inn” (pandeion) in the “Good Samaritan” parable (Luke 10:34).
But there’s more that we have missed or gotten wrong.
Like the fact Mary and Joseph weren’t two lone kids desperately seeking shelter so the virgin could give birth. The facts state otherwise. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem because of the census law by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1). Joseph was in the lineage of David and probably had numerous relatives, perhaps brothers and sisters, still living in this town of less than a thousand people. So the couple had plenty of lodging options.
When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem they soon learned space was limited in the normal “guest” rooms. First century homes were small and most were single level. A guest room suggested a larger house. In most homes, the entire family slept in the same room and guests would’ve joined them if room was available. A guest room was a bonus room. The Nativity story states when Mary and Joseph arrived, there was no longer any room in the “kataluma” or guest room (Luke 2:7). The couple were surprise visitors, though definitely welcomed. In the first century, informing relatives of a pending stay was impossible. You just showed up and took whatever available floor space remained.
So where did Mary and Joseph find sleeping quarters (and eventually birth their baby boy)? The Scriptures reference a “manger” (Luke 2:7) and that means they bunked in the barn with the animals. If a house was large enough to have a “guest” (kataluma) room then they also had a barn for their livestock (sheep, chickens, cattle). A manger was used to feed the livestock. Some Bible scholars suggest Jesus was born in a cave but that’s unlikely since most caves would’ve been outside the walls of Bethlehem. The city gates and walls were critical to protect the citizens. Bethlehem was large enough to have a gated wall. Consequently, the only ones outside the walls were outlaws, thieves and shepherds (basically akin to today’s migrant farm worker). Caves were not exactly the safest places either. We know from Luke’s account the shepherds went to Bethlehem to see the Christ child so Jesus was born inside, not outside, the city (Luke 2:15).
The barn was a lot like our garages today. Livestock were for transportation and work. They needed protection (from theft) and provision. Some barns were separate structures but in many first century houses they were connected. Remember the reference to the “upper room” where Jesus communed with his disciples (Luke 22:12)? An “upper” room suggests a “lower” room, and families wealthy enough to own a two-level house basically lived above their livestock. In other words, the “lower” room was likely the barn as it was safer and more convenient. Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus slept in the garage or the lower room with the family livestock. Such accommodations aren’t unusual, even by today’s standards. Barns have often been great places to sleep for the weary traveler.
Luke 2:6 also suggests that Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem already when the Messiah was born. They came for the census but her pregnancy made them stay. Evidently, the guest room was still occupied (perhaps by another new mother), so Mary and Joseph billeted in the garage (or barn). The Scriptures don’t say Mary gave birth alone or in the barn though. It’s just where the baby Jesus was staying the night the shepherds visited. Mary probably gave birth in the house, aided by female relatives and midwives, and then moved newborn Jesus to a plush manger crib for the night.
Later the magi (wisemen) will visit Jesus, most likely still staying at the same relative’s house, except now sleeping in the “guest” room (Matthew 2:11). Why didn’t Mary and Joseph return to Nazareth? After all, Herod’s edict to kill all boys under two years of age suggest the young couple stayed in Bethlehem longer than just a few weeks or months (Matthew 2:16). They perhaps were in Bethlehem for the duration, but left for Egypt under duress thanks to a “warning” dream. Nevertheless, they went to Egypt and not Nazareth. The reasons? The rumor mill was still hot in Mary’s hometown. Joseph was married to a pregnant Mary (not carrying his son)–a crime worthy of death. Egypt was on a different continent and nobody would know them there. It was the perfect place for this troubled couple to hide out.
Consequently, Jesus was born in a barn but raised on the run.
Here’s what we know for sure:
- Baby Jesus wasn’t born alone (no doubt many other relatives witnessed the event, besides those Bethlehem shepherds).
- Neither did his parents travel door to door, desperately seeking shelter on that first Christmas Eve. Actually inhospitality was a grievous social “sin” in first century Palestine.
- The manger was in a barn connected to the house and probably inside it. It was a secure, warm and comfortable location.
- Mary and Joseph had family, room and time in Bethlehem. They stayed in the little town for months, perhaps nearly two years before escaping for Egypt (a trip financed by the magi’s gold). Joseph was probably working his carpenter trade at the time. Only after years in exile would they return to Nazareth, no doubt with an extra baby brother or sister in tow.
Puts a new spin on an old story, doesn’t it?
The Grinch desperately tried to steal Christmas in 1994, 2005 and 2011, but 2016 might be the year he finally gets the deed done.
After all, Christmas falls on a Sunday this year. And it’s proving controversial. Some have already called on pastors not to cancel Sunday services. The reasons are good, but it may be too late.
For centuries in Christendom, a Christmas Sunday was particularly blessed. The “Christ Mass” and Sunday (selected because it honored Jesus’ resurrection) were highly honored days within Christian culture. After all, it was widely believed Jesus was conceived and died on the same day. And since the ancient Jewish calendar placed Christ’s death as March 25, then nine months after this day (December 25) was the date for the Messiah’s birth. Consequently, when his birthday and his Resurrection (Sun)day landed together, it was something truly special.
Nobody missed mass on a Christmas Sunday.
But that was then and this is now.
In 2016, the tipping point for the decline in American churchianity will be very evident, I fear. Although I hope I’m wrong, my guess is Christmas Sunday morning services will prove to be among the lowest attended all year. Many churches have already shuttered services. Still other congregations are scaling back or reducing services to accommodate lower attendances.
The good news? What still draws USAmericans are Christmas Eve services…where I’m definitely predicting larger than normal crowds. Most of America’s 223 million Christians traditionally gather to remember the Christ child’s birth on Christmas Eve, but it remains to be seen if they’ll return hours later for a second service. Many church watchdogs feel it’s unlikely and suspect the sanctuary will be eerily emptier on Sunday morning, December 25, 2016.
Let’s face facts: Sunday morning is hardly sacred anymore. It’s just another day for Americans to play, shop, dine, sleep and work. Regular church attendance has been sliding for years (in some parts of the country its in single digits). The average churchgoer now attends around two to three times a month, even in the buckle of the Bible belt. This explains the traditional Easter bounce, when on Resurrection Sunday, Christians collectively gather and, consequently, boost attendances. This year, Christmas will likely produce the opposite effect and collectively be a day USAmericans choose to sabbath at home. Many churches have simply decided not to fight the obvious, but is this caving into culture or an attempt to serve the needs of our context?
Will people, including many regular attenders, stay away on Christmas Sunday? And why does Christmas Eve still attract like the star in the east? The reasons are intriguing.
First, because Christmas Eve services are often better designed and produced than normal Sunday services (and people know it). Furthermore, Christmas Eve services don’t separate families, focus upon traditions (carols, hanging of the greens) and are more experiential (candlelight communion, living nativities). Christmas Eve messages are simpler and shorter. Offerings are designated for community need. Ironically, the churches who draw the largest crowds for Christmas Eve are those who still go old school. Here in Boise it’s standing room only at the Cathedral of the Rockies every Christmas Eve when pipe organs, Christmas hymns, candlelightings, handbells, high-back pews and inspiring stained-glass windows make the yuletide bright.
A second reason for this year’s mass Christmas Day exodus is because the holiday has become the day to stay home with family and friends. Unlike Easter and Thanksgiving, nearly everything is closed on Christmas day, especially in the A.M. It’s the only calendar day that most restaurants, shops and stores shut down. Families also have special traditions, customs and rituals for Christmas and many of these treasured traditions happen during the morning hours. Just like churches used to fight the Super Bowl on Sunday night (and lost), now churches who plan Sunday services for Christmas day will also lose to Christmas morning gift exchanges. This year, more than ever, even regular attenders will stay home…especially since they’ve already participated in Christmas Eve services.
A third reason also presents a brewing problem: the average church service requires a boatload of volunteers and they’ll likely be missing. Churches rely upon multiple volunteers to greet, pass offering buckets, lead (and play) worship songs, run lights and sound, teach Sunday lessons to children and teens, distribute bulletins and countless other necessary tasks. Since most church families will prefer to stay home or wish to be out of town, including those most likely to volunteer, the stress to find replacements is already proving taxing. It’s not like the old days when you could hold a church service with a preacher and a piano player. Today’s event-driven worship services require numerous individuals to produce a service. Furthermore, many volunteers will have already served Christmas Eve (including multiple services in larger congregations), so it’ll be hard to persuade them back for another round in the morning. Finally, it’ll be downright impossible to find teachers and workers for the nursery and children’s ministry on Christmas Day. And since most families will likely be the first ones to miss church on Christmas Sunday, even if a teacher is replaced who’s to say there’ll even be students?
Consequently, many church leaders are rethinking a Christmas Day worship service. And some have already concluded it ain’t worth the time or energy. It’s like Sunday night church. Television killed Sunday night church services in the 1970s. By the late 1980s, most churches finally ditched the dead dinosaur. Similar ditchings have happened with church camp, revival services, Bible Bowl, pews, organs and pulpits. All good ideas and useful in their contextual and cultural era, but are now largely out of step (despite detractors who argue otherwise).
With that said, I’m not sure a full shuttering of services is necessary. Just don’t be surprised if only a scattered few show up on Christmas Sunday (the optimists predict 50% of normal). In fact, I think an unplugged, even acapella, scaled-back worship experience could be attractive, especially if its late in the morning (11 a.m.) or early afternoon (1 p.m.). An early morning service will most certainly crash this year. If possible, the services need to require few volunteers. Use only the necessary people. You don’t need a full band, maybe just a couple of guitars or a keyboard.
Another outside the box idea is a return to the midnight Christ-mass (candlelight communion). Historically, Christians gathered at midnight on Christmas Eve to celebrate the Eucharist. What if your church held a midnight service that also served as your Sunday worship service too? Many Christians, particularly those from mainline and Catholic traditions, value and seek midnight worship experiences on Christmas eve. Christmas day is then a time to rest, open gifts, eat and celebrate family. It’s still not too late to add such a service.
For those who are cancelling services altogether, it might be good to publish service times for other churches in town. After all, you might have a few faithful saints who still want to attend a Christmas Sunday morning church service.
Of course the wild card in this whole mix is the weather. If the U.S. is hit by a monster storm (or storms) on Christmas Sunday, that will make it even worse on attendance counts. But, in general, this Christmas Sunday will reveal the terrible, troubling, continuing tragedy of the decline of American churchianity. Like it or not, it’s getting easier and easier for western Christians to stay away from church.
The old hymn extols how we “heard the bells on Christmas Day.” It’s a warm and welcome yuletide sentiment. Unfortunately, few churches now have steeples or bells. The times have changed. Consequently, Christmas Eve services is when the Church should unleash her finest creativity, best resources and greatest talent. It’s the best window all year to attract the de-churched, former churched and unchurched.
And when Christmas falls on a Sunday, like this year, we might also need to relax, reinvent and reimagine. If its best to cancel, that’s understandable. If it’s better to meet, then so be it. Perhaps it’s profitable to remember Paul’s words to the Romans: One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord (Romans 14:5-6).
Ultimately, American Christians will vote with their feet this year…they’ll certainly flock to Christmas Eve services and don’t be surprised if they’re not back in the A.M.
Bells or no bells.