I like Christmas, in a bittersweet kind of way. It’s beautiful and fun and full of hope, but also complex and difficult and sometimes sad. My mother died a few months ago, and I’m sure I’ll really miss her on Christmas morning. Christmas is a time of joy that reminds us that joy is elusive and surrounded by trouble.
Like a baby laid in a manger, you might say.
My favourite secular Christmas song captures this: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas”, originally sung by Judy Garland in Meet me in St Louis, and included on just about everyone’s Christmas album ever since.
It captures the bittersweet nature of Christmas so wistfully and longingly. It speaks of Christmas as a time of gathering and friends and even hope. And yet our lives never live up to that dream. In fact, we can only hope that maybe next year “our troubles will be far away”. Maybe next year, we will actually be able to gather with all our old friends as we once did. “Until then, we’ll just have to muddle through somehow.”
Here’s the James Taylor version:
Of course, the best Christmas carols reflect this even better—that is, the joy of God becoming man because man is in such a desperate state. Hark, the Herald is famous for speaking of “Peace on earth and mercy mild; God and sinners reconciled”. Joy to the world has an often-omitted third verse that speaks of Jesus coming to lift the curse.
But my favourite Christmas hymn, which is hardly ever sung these days, does it beautifully:
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becamest poor.
Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest man;
Stooping so low, but sinners raising,
Heavenward by Thine eternal plan.
Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest man.
(Here’s the King’s College Cambridge version:)
The news of Jesus’ incarnation is good news, because of the lost and sinful world into which he was born, and which he came to save. He became poor to make the poor rich.
I’ve spent the last few days of this last pre-Christmas week finishing a draft of chapter 2 of the Two ways to live evangelistic book (that a number of you are helping me write). It’s the chapter all about our rejection of God, and all the damage we do to ourselves and each other and the world. I’ve pasted the final section of the chapter below (this is the part that those of you who are partner/subscribers have been waiting on).
It’s certainly not the happiest, tinsel-covered subject for an end of year meditation.
But then again, maybe it’s the perfect pre-Christmas reading; a picture of the black night of Christmas eve into which the light of the world was born.
The 2wtl Book: Chapter 2
The Human Problem
The first two thirds of the chapter sets out the nature of rebellion against God. This final part thinks about the consequences for our lives.
When we reject God, we attack the foundations of everything that is true and good and beautiful in the world. We embrace the first lie. And then all the other lies and follies and consequences start to compound.
We see this played out in so many ways, in our own lives and in our broader culture.
In our personal lives, perhaps the most significant consequence of our declaration of independence from God is how hard we find it to be interdependent with each other. Once I’ve decided that I’m the centre of my world (not God), that puts me in an odd position with respect to You. We’re no longer on the same level—both creatures of God, both in his image, both taking our cue from him as to how we are to treat each other as fellow creatures.
Now I’m the little god in charge of my own self and my own world, and when I encounter You, I find another little god who also thinks they are the most important person in their world. And then I find that there isn’t room in our relationship for two little gods. One of us has to prevail.
The self-interest that comes so naturally to us makes all relationships difficult. We’re alienated from each other.
We’re also alienated from the world itself. Because Western society is no longer confident that the world is a created place, with a good and beautiful shape given to it by its Creator, we don’t know what to do with the world. There are multiple examples. We don’t seem able to manage and develop the world’s resources without exploiting and destroying them. We aren’t able to find political leaders who don’t end up disillusioning us with their lies or folly or corruption. We even don’t seem able to figure out something as basic as what it means to be a man or a woman—in fact, a growing number of Westerners are now nervous to say that there even are such things as ‘men’ and ‘women’ (which is a rebellion against reality if ever there was one).
For me personally, one of the most interesting and striking consequences is simply how ugly the modern Western world is. We seem to have lost confidence in the possibility or desirability of beauty. Our cities are full of thrusting buildings of concrete and glass and steel, whose ugliness we hardly notice any more. When was the last time you saw a house or a set of apartments built in the last 50 years, and thought how pleasing it was to the eye?
It’s the same with the arts. Almost no-one listens to modern orchestral music these days, because it has become discordant and jarring. Modern art seems more interested in making political or transgressive statements than in expressing anything beautiful about the world. And whenever I see a poem printed in the review section of the Saturday paper, I valiantly try to read and make sense of it, but give up half way through.
This was not the case in a previous era. The arts were massively and widely appreciated, and we still enjoy and appreciate the artfulness and beauty of those works today. We look at the architecture of a century ago and wonder how they made buildings of such lasting character and beauty.
As a culture we find ourselves in the strange position. We’re like teenagers who can’t help being shaped and moulded by the family we were raised in, and yet whose hostility and rebellion against those values leaves us conflicted and confused. Our underlying cultural values are mostly Christian. And yet our rebellion against God and Christianity has clouded our minds and hearts. We can’t make sense of the world or of our lives. We still encounter the goodness and beauty of the world, and yet perversely we embrace ugliness and self-destructive behaviour.
This is true of our culture. But more importantly, it is true for each one of us. The human problem isn’t just out there in society. It’s in each of our hearts. We’re all personally in rebellion against the God who made us.
This is the human problem, and it’s grim news.
But this grim news is a vital part of the back story to the incredible news (or ‘gospel’) about Jesus. If the news about Jesus was a movie, we’re still in that middle part of the story where things are getting worse and more complicated.
Good news is coming. A resolution is coming. But to understand and appreciate it, there’s one more piece of sober news to wrap our minds and hearts around.
It’s about God. We’ve talked a lot in this chapter about our attitude to God, our rebellion against him, and all the consequences that flow from that.
But what is God’s attitude to our rebellion?
Well that’s the end of chapter 2. Would love your thoughts, as always.
Thanks again for your partnership and fellowship over this past 12 months. It’s been a joy to be able to write for you.
Time for a little break (for all of us). I’ll be back in touch in the second week of January.