It’s a common complaint. Christmas is just too busy! With all the unchecked items on our lists—the shopping for that one last gift that can’t be found, the frantic last-minute kitchen episodes and the exhaustion that makes us look forward to it being over—Christmas seems to be slightly overrated as a major holiday. But, before we give up on it, we need a reminder that there is hidden treasure waiting to be discovered in the rush of it all.
Making a list of the abundant blessings that are wrapped up in the birth of Jesus would be a good start to rescuing the significance of Christmas from its more “grinch-ish” elements.
At the top of my Christmas list is the reality that the birth of Jesus was the beginning of God’s plan to offer us relief and release from our sinful condition. Being guilty before Him precludes any possibility of a relationship with Him, let alone any hope of Heaven. As the Apostle John reminds us, “God so loved the world, that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). When we come to Him in repentance, He graciously forgives our sins and redeems us into His Kingdom.
Next on my list would be the fact that on that first Christmas a Child was born who would call Himself “the way” (John 14:6). As Jesus navigated the complicated territory of human traditions, prejudices, preferences and instincts, He showed us a new way to live. According to His way, enemies should be forgiven and the poor should be helped. People should die to self in order to live and give in order to gain.
With Jesus, people mattered most, and no one escaped the swath of His love and concern. He showed us the danger of being religious, that it tends to make us proud and self-righteous. His way taught us that when suffering interrupts our lives, it has meaning and should be embraced for its value and not resisted for its pain. He was born to show us a better way to live.
In addition, I would include that Jesus was born to be our High Priest. When Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s response was spot on: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus told Peter that he had gotten it right—an A+ on the quiz. When Peter said Jesus was “the Christ,” he recognized that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah. (Christ is the Greek word for the Hebrew Messiah.) The prophets had foretold His coming and described this Christ as one who would fulfill all three roles of national leadership: prophet, king and priest. As prophet He would speak the words of God to the nation. As king He would righteously rule from the throne of David. As High Priest He would function as the liaison between God and His people.
It was the responsibility of the High Priest to perform sacrifices for the sins of the people, intercede for the needs of his people and serve as the human connection in clearing the way for God to bless and benefit His people.
It’s the fact that Jesus was born to be our High Priest that fascinates me most this Christmas. Hebrews 4:14 states, “We have a great high priest.” The text goes on to articulate how important this is to us. With Jesus as our High Priest we can approach Him with unstaggering confidence that we will receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need. That’s really good news! Inevitably we will find ourselves in need. In fact, if we understand how fallen we are, being in need is a daily experience. We discover that we need:
- wisdom to navigate difficult relationships;
- comfort in times of sorrow and loss;
- strength to forgive;
- persistence in suffering;
- trust to cling to when everything around us is falling apart;
- resolve to resist the temptations that are so appealing, yet so destructive; and
- liberation from a self-focused life that blinds us to the joy of serving others.
It is in the context of needs like these that the writer of Hebrews calls us to embrace Jesus as our High Priest, because in Him, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in the time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).
This invitation to embrace the empathetic Jesus as High Priest came like a breath of fresh air to the Jews of Jesus’ day. Their High Priest was totally out of touch with the everyday struggles of their lives. He was wealthy, highly connected in the upper echelons of society and absorbed in the world of his own pleasures. In fact, in the literature from the inter-testamental period it is noted that the sacrifices for the people often went undone because the priests were AWOL, attending wrestling matches, which were popular sporting events of that day.
Jesus is refreshingly different. Theologians speak of the coming of Christ as the “incarnation.” In other words, God through Jesus takes on flesh and is born as a human, though remaining completely God. It’s God appearing on our planet as one of us. And it’s clear that He didn’t do it to make headlines with a celebrity appearance. Jesus came as a commoner, and that fact in and of itself has deep and profound meaning.
In love He came and pitched His tent among us, exempting Himself from nothing and experiencing everything that we experience in our times of need. He suffered as we suffer. He faced the challenges of being misunderstood and maligned. He was betrayed by a friend that He loved. He was falsely accused and publicly humiliated. He knew what it meant to be lonely, in deep pain, mocked, ridiculed and spurned by those in places of authority and power.
He understands us! He feels our pain! As the Letter to the Hebrews says, He is actually touched by the feeling of our infirmity. And this deep connection that He feels with our struggles triggers a ready willingness to mercifully receive us as undeserving, weak and needy people. And, as He receives us, He generously dispenses grace to help us persevere and succeed regardless of the situation.
Grace is the favor that He extends to empower us not only to survive but to thrive in the midst of difficulty. As Paul endured his stubborn “thorn in the flesh,” he testified that God’s grace was sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). In fact, he found that in his weakness God became strong. The lesson is clear! When you flee to Him in the time of need you can be confident that He feels your pain and that He will give you the grace to endure victoriously.
But believer beware! God’s Word warns us that if we become bitter in the face of our troubles, our bitterness will block His grace (Hebrews 12:15). So, surrender to the trial, turn from the temptation and flee to your High Priest. His grace will instruct you through Scripture. His grace will provide enduring patience as you trust Him. At times He will graciously surprise you with encouragement from unlikely sources just when you need it most. Even more important, His grace will draw you to His side that you might experience the strength and intimacy of fellowshipping in His sufferings (Philippians 3:10).
I’ve never thought of it as a Christmas carol, but maybe this old song should qualify for inclusion among the songs that we sing at this year’s Christmas Eve services: “I need thee, O, I need thee! Every hour I need thee! O, bless me now my Savior, I come to thee!”
Joseph Stowell is president of Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.