Responding to Christmas
Can there be a moderate response to the Christmas story?
This is the fifth devotional in Ministry to State's Advent series: The Politics of Christmas. You can read the previous devotional here.
“Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them,“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.
Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Matthew 11:2-6, 11-12)
As we have seen throughout this series, the birth of Jesus was met with mixed responses. Some, like the shepherds and wise men, responded to the news of Jesus by honoring and worshiping him. Others, like Herod and his political allies, were greatly troubled by the news of Jesus and immediately opposed him. In other words, from the very beginning, the arrival of the Son of God was divisive.
The division that Jesus created at his birth would foreshadow the division he would produce throughout his life. Some would find him to be a source of hope and life, while others would be completely scandalized by him. In the passage above, we find that even John the Baptist was eventually offended by Jesus too.
These different responses to Jesus highlight something important for us to consider, which is that there can be no moderate response to Jesus. Because the claim of Jesus from his birth was that he was the True King coming into the world, it meant that people would have to choose sides. They could either choose to receive him or reject him, but there was (and remains) no room for indifference to the one claiming to be the Lord and Savior of the world.
Many people today are also offended by Jesus. That’s because the claim of Christianity is that Jesus really was (and is) who he claimed to be: the Lord of the world who has come down from heaven to bring salvation to lowly sinners. While other world religions teach people how to reach transcendence, to find inner-peace, or even how to reach up to the heavens, Christianity teaches that God has reached down to us in order to bring us peace.
That is truthfully what Christmas is all about. It is the announcement that God has really acted in this world by sending us his Son. This is what we call “the Gospel” or “good news.”
But the Gospel itself is offensive because only those who recognize their own poverty and need for a Savior will be able to accept it. This is what Jesus teaches us through his interaction with John. It’s the poor who accept Jesus, and it’s the people who know they’re no different than the poor who accept Jesus. Those who cannot bring themselves to recognize as much are bound to be offended by him.
But another reason people are offended by Jesus is that he demands so much from them. To accept Jesus as Lord and Savior also means that you will give up everything in order to follow him. That’s why Jesus says in verse 12 that “the violent” take the kingdom of heaven “by force.” He’s saying that only those who pursue the kingdom with reckless—even violent—abandon actually receive it.
Again, there can be no moderate response to Jesus. Those who claim that Jesus is merely a great moral teacher or even a prophet have not looked closely at what the Scriptures are claiming about him nor what he actually teaches. As C.S. Lewis famously said, Jesus is either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. Those are our only options, and we must respond accordingly.
Christmas demands a response from us because Christmas is the claim that God has truly and historically acted in this world by sending us Jesus, our Immanuel. This is not something we can accept half-heartedly or impassively. Rather, Christmas offers us a choice: will we receive Jesus, admitting our need for a Savior and accepting him as Lord, or will we reject him?
If we receive him, then surely it will cost us everything. After all, the claim of Jesus is that he is Lord of heaven and earth, the King of God’s people. And if we believe that Jesus has done everything to come near to us in order to save us, which is the promise of Christmas, then of course we owe him everything.
But the promise of Jesus is that those who are not offended by him will be blessed. Accepting Jesus means that we recognize our own poverty and need for him, but it also means that we receive the riches of his Kingdom as our inheritance (1 Peter 1:3-5). The only correct response is to bow the knee to the once lowborn King who is now seated on the throne of heaven, and to give your whole life to him.
Adam Smith is a Ministry Associate in Washington D.C.