Chapter Four of In Search of the Real Spirit of Christmas
I was strolling through a shop in the mall at Christmas one year when I happened to look up and spy the word “Joy” hanging from the ceiling. It just dangled there with no explanation, twirling slowly. Despite its gay coloring and festive holiday surroundings, the word seemed sadly out of place. No one looked very joyful. And I couldn’t help but feel that happiness seems to drift in and out of most people’s Christmas season like a decorative tumbleweed. Is this all that the joy promised was about, something to enjoy for a few fleeting days a year?
We have read the angelic declaration of joy found in Luke, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10 NIV) But if you seriously ponder the message and the news, you will find yourself facing a dilemma. While we who believe in Jesus certainly experience joy at remembering the entrance of our Lord into our world, that wasn’t what the angel promised. He didn’t promise that there would be good news just for Christians.
The good news was to be “for all the people.” Good news for some people occurs every day, good news for most people happens infrequently, but how could the birth of Jesus spell good news for everyone? Until we have answered that question, the pronouncement remains suspect. There are certain truths that we cling to despite the fact that we aren’t really sure how it could be so. This might have been one of those truths for you.
If news is only good news for one race, one group of people, or one segment of society, then it really isn’t good news—it’s just news. Not long ago my neighbor drove up in a beautiful new SUV. We were admiring the vehicle when he told me that a relative had given it to him for a steal. Now that was good news for my neighbor, and I rejoiced at his good fortune, but it wasn’t my good news.
Good news is only good news for you if you’re included in the benefits. I could appreciate my friend’s good news, but I couldn’t participate in the benefits. Now if his relative had another great car at a steal of a price...
Have you ever asked yourself what good news could effect all people equally, regardless of race, sex, income level, or location? Until you do, you can’t really come to grips with the angelic promise. The more you think about the promise, the more amazing it becomes to you. Going in search of the real Christmas spirit requires that we come to grips with this incredible claim.
I’ll admit that I spent quite a bit of time in thought over this. Several times I despaired of the process as I began to realize how difficult it was to find anything that was good news for all people equally. Initially, I thought of a cure for cancer. Surely that would be good news for all the people. But then I realized that not everyone has cancer. Some have AIDS, heart problems, or other diseases. So, while the cure is good news for those affected by cancer, the benefits don’t affect everyone equally.
Then I thought about all wars coming to an end. Surely an end to all wars would be good news for everyone. But, again, I realized that there are many who aren’t at war, or directly affected by one. An end to all wars wouldn’t have an immediate effect upon everyone equally. Many wars were going on in different parts of the world that did not affect me directly. This was going to be more difficult than I had imagined.
Finally I was sure I had the answer--the elimination of poverty. Wouldn’t that be universal good news? But of course there are millions of people who are not directly affected by poverty, nor poor themselves. In fact, there are hundreds of millions, if not billions of people who are quite well off compared to everyone else. This good news simply wouldn’t affect everyone equally.
It began to dawn on me that perhaps I had taken this familiar phrase for granted. I knew in my heart that for this news to be truly good news there could be no situation, no place, no people, no time, and no culture where it was not good news. Having opened the proverbial can of worms, I found that I could no longer fit this joy neatly back into its Christmas box.
How could this “joy” we were supposed to experience truly be for “all the people?” I couldn’t help feeling the joy of Christmas begin to slip through my fingers. What had the angel really meant? Was God engaging in a bit of divine hyperbole? Was He just being dramatic? Was the “all the people” really referring to just all shepherds? Before I completely despaired, however, God reminded me of something I hadn’t considered.
THE OFFER IS OPEN TO ANYONE
Before you think this is a point too obvious to make, think about all the offers you have heard and received in your life. How many of them were open to absolutely everyone who was alive, and would be alive in the future? All the offers we receive have built in restrictions, limitations, and expiration dates attached to them.
A great example is the American ideal of freedom. Our country has for years stood as a beacon of hope to the peoples of the world seeking freedom. We offer freedom to all who are oppressed and seeking asylum. But the stipulation is that you have to come to America to get it. We can’t export it and make it available anywhere in the world. The offer therefore is not open to everyone, because not everyone can get to America. Do you begin to see the difficulty of any offer that affects all equally?
So often amazing offers sound great until you read the fine print below, where the stipulations are spelled out. Then your excitement turns to disappointment when you learn that you have to buy something, or be a certain age, or income level, or live in a certain place to be eligible. The many Sweepstakes that are offered through the mail to so many of us all have fine print. The fine print details who is really eligible, and who is not. You often have to be on someone’s subscription list to even be made aware of this offer.
Some offers are limited to certain people, others are limited to certain times and situations. A Sweepstakes company may offer a wonderful prize this year, but only this year. The offer has a definite beginning and expiration date. A store chain might make a great offer to any who come into their shops in the month of December, but after December the offer is no longer available. At times countries embroiled in civil war with rebel factions will declare a time of amnesty where rebels can be pardoned and reenter the society without fear of retribution. Yet, there is a beginning and ending to this offer.
But it makes sense. With all the cultures, languages and geographical distances that separate us from one another, it is virtually impossible to make any offer universally and always available. It simply can’t be done humanly, no matter how hard we try. Some will simply be in a better situation to take advantage of any offer than others will. It’s not fair, but it’s life. And as we have learned with maturity, life isn’t always fair.
That’s what makes this offer stand out so vividly. This offer of good news, which will bring great joy, transcends political boundaries, languages, customs, geography, status, income, race, religion, sex, and any other barrier. It is an offer that applies equally to each and every human heart and mind. There is no favoritism involved here, not even to the Jews. This wasn’t good news of a great joy which shall be to all Jews, but which shall be to all people. And there is no expiration date—the offer is still good.
The Christian mission has always been to take the good news to every nation. This is why every people, country, language, and culture has been a target for Christian missionaries. This good news doesn’t simply apply to everyone, but it applies to everyone equally. It is just as important to share this good news with a person living in a primitive tribe in the jungles of South America as it is with those living in modern industrialized societies.
No one who hears this offer is in a better or worse position to take advantage of it than someone else. Jesus birth didn’t just offer good news to a certain group of people in a certain time and place, His birth and its implications ushered in good news for all the people. But we are also going to see that this good news for all people means even more.
THERE IS PURPOSE AND MEANING TO LIFE
During my high school graduation, as each student’s name was read, there was great cheering and whooping and hollering for the popular kids. When my name was read a lone cricket chirped mournfully. It was another painful reminder that my presence, or even my absence, was of very little consequence.
I desperately needed to know that I had a purpose beyond taking up space. I yearned to know that somewhere, to someone, I was considered invaluable. I found that significance in that Christ child, who would grow up to suffer and die for an insignificant guy like me. And while I knew He had come to die for everyone, I also knew that He would have gone through it all just for me. No one might have thought I was very important in High School, but all heaven rejoiced when I was granted entrance into His eternal kingdom.
High School is now but a memory, as is college, but now I can stare down the barrel of eternity and smile. You can’t be insignificant if the God of heaven wants you to live with Him forever, and there is not a person in the world, past, present or future, who was ever excluded from His offer. If God had never entered our world, we would have never known. God didn’t keep His love a secret from us. That’s good news for all the people.
THE GOD WHO EXISTS IS GOOD
Maybe I’m different than everyone else, or have a sensitive conscience, but I never had to be convinced that I was a sinner. My earliest visions of God, created by the churches I attended, provided a sobering picture. I always believed in an all knowing, all-powerful, all seeing God, but it never provided me much joy. On the contrary, I had a lingering feeling that if He paid too close attention to what I was doing He would make my life a living hell.
But God didn’t send an angel to tell us He’s had it with us—and He’s going to make an end to us, or worse. He sent an angel to say that in spite of how we’ve failed Him, He had some good news! He was born a Savior, not a Destroyer. He came to bring us great joy, not great destruction. Even after my sins had scarred Him for all eternity, He only loved me back.
The God who exists, I learned to my great relief, was truly, and perfectly Good! And there is simply no place, or time, where that good message is bad news. People may not like the very idea of God, but if there has to be a God, they certainly want a Good one in contrast to a bad one!
SINS CAN BE FORGIVEN
When I first became a Christian, I had the feeling that God’s grace came with a ration card. Everyone got some, but you had to be careful that you didn’t overdo it. I approached God timidly at times, afraid my account might be overdrawn.
Yet, instead of taking great delight in judging me for my shortcomings, of which there are many, God sent His Son to earth to settle accounts with Him on my behalf. He accepted Jesus’ perfect life as a fitting payment for all my sins. My grace credit line was eternally extended. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince people that there is a perfect, righteous God, who nevertheless loves them and forgives them. It’s not an easy sell, strangely, but it is always good news.
This baby Savior would grow up to spend time with prostitutes and embezzlers, telling them the same thing He would tell the religious people—there’s place for you in My House, and I want you to come and live with Me. I know everything about you, and yet, I still want to be your Savior! Good news for all the people!
THERE IS MORE TO LIFE THAN THIS
I am a dreamer; I have been all my life. Probably always will be. I am constantly dreaming of a better world, because the one I live in is painful and unpleasant at times. My own life and my family are wonderful, as are my friends, but this wonderful life cannot protect me from the death of loved ones, sickness, trials or tribulations. I believe it is a universal experience to dream of a better life, one without the pain and suffering. When God visited us from heaven, we had empirical evidence that there is another world beyond this one. Our world would never have produced our Savior; He had to come from a better place.
To all who have dreamed of a better world, who have wondered what it would be like to live in a perfect world, with perfect relationships, in perfect peace, there is good news! This Savior who was born for you came to tell you what that other world was like, and how to get there someday. The best part of our life has yet to begin.
GOOD NEWS FOR EVERYONE!
But now I had come full circle. Was the birth of Christ good news for Herod, who would be jealous of Him, and seek to kill Him? What about the Pharisees and Scribes, who would reject Him, and oppose Him? Was it good news for them? Yes, because though they may have never acknowledged it, they desperately needed a Savior. Jesus is the only Savior an atheist or an agnostic has.
Christmas isn’t just good news for Christians, but for everyone. Everyone has a Savior. He is Mother Theresa’s savior, and Madonna’s. The good news of a great joy was for Madelyn Murray O’Hair as well as for Billy Graham. It was as much good news for Mary and Martha, as Pilate and Herod. He was the Savior of the soldiers who killed Him, as well as Peter and Paul who worshipped Him.
The good news for the Hindu’s and the Buddhists and the Moslems is that Jesus is their Savior. In Acts 4:12 Peter says, “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved.” Jesus isn’t just the Christian’s Savior, He is everyone’s, whether they accept it or not.
Though most people will not avail themselves of this good news, this in no way diminishes the character of the news. An act of kindness, even when it is snubbed, remains an act of kindness. And hope, even when it is rejected, is still hope. A person with a chemical dependency has good news, there is hope to change. The good news that they can change never becomes bad news, even if they choose not to avail themselves of the opportunity.
Not long ago my brother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer. That was bad news. Fortunately, they found it in time, and he fully recovered—good news. Cancer is treatable, but only when we know it is a problem. It is the same with God’s good news. The good news highlights the bad news: we need a Savior. We have a deep heartfelt need for something only God can give us.
Madelyn Murray O’Hair, arguably the most famous and visible atheist of our age, vanished several years ago, the victim of a murder. Her diaries were auctioned off to satisfy Internal Revenue Service claims against her estate. At least a half dozen times in her diaries four words appeared over and over.
“Somebody, somewhere, love me.”1
Somebody, somewhere did love her; He loved her so much that He died just for her. He wanted her to come and live with Him in His eternal kingdom forever. It was good news of a great joy which shall be for all people, even Madelyn Murray O’Hair.
This good news is good no matter who you are, and the offer is the same no matter who you are. Whether you are Bill Gates, or a street orphan in Brazil, whether you’re Queen of England, or a street prostitute, whether your life has been charmed, or you are a three strike prisoner who will never taste human freedom again. Whether you have lived a wonderful life, trying to please God, or lived a life in defiance of God, the good news remains.
And suddenly, the joy made sense! In searching for the real spirit of Christmas, we cannot bypass joy. We can experience joy over many different experiences at Christmas without ever experiencing the joy we were intended to enjoy. But we were promised a different joy, a greater joy, a permanent joy. And even though our neighbors may not celebrate this joy with us, it is still good news for them. And maybe, for the first time, we realize that.
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11 NIV).
REFLECTION AND CELEBRATION
We are taught in our culture to respect everyone’s race, religion and culture. This is good and proper. But to many Christians, this has come to mean keeping our faith safely to ourselves, to keep from offending anyone with the implications.
A good exercise this Christmas is to think of several of your non-Christian friends, perhaps writing their names down, even those of other faiths. After you’ve done that, dare to ask yourselves how the good news of Jesus birth is good news to them. How might true joy enter their lives if they accepted this good news themselves?
Ask God to show you a new, creative way to communicate this good news to those people, not only through spoken words, but acts of love and kindness. Make it your goal this year to find a creative new way to share the good news of a great joy with not only those you know and love, but those Jesus loves as well.
(1) Leadership Journal, To Illustrate Plus: Spring 1999, pg. 75. Madelyn Murray O’Hair, at least a half-dozen times in her diaries, which were auctioned off January 23, 1999 to satisfy Internal Revenue Service claims against her estate.