If someone were to ask you what Christmas means, you probably would explain that it is the celebration of the birth of Jesus; and most people would likely agree with you. But (fasten your seat belts!), according to the gospel of John, neither you nor most people would be precisely ‘on target.’ More accurately, Christmas is the celebration of the incarnation of God into a human life: especially the life of Jesus, thereby making him a source of light and guidance for the world. But when Jesus told us that we, also, are the light of the world, he seems to be referring to the fact that incarnation (God’s living in and working through a person) is a reality that is not limited only to himself. Incarnation is a possibility for every one of us!
I once fidgeted through a tedious Christmas sermon that the minister had entitled ‘Light from the Manger.’ The essence of the message was that Jesus, from the moment of conception, was fully and completely God instead of his becoming godly; Jesus had nothing to do with it, nothing to learn, no decisions to make, no process of development to experience. Is that what the writer of the gospel of John said? No. The text states simply that ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us.’ It doesn’t say when godliness became a part of Jesus and it doesn’t explain how. It doesn’t indicate whether his ‘becoming’ godly was immediate and instantaneous or whether it was a process of development. However, one of the other gospel writers does. He indicated that the way in which Jesus became godly was the result of a developmental process: Jesus ‘grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and with people.’ Don’t miss the emphasis here: ‘Jesus grew…in favor with God!’ That gospel writer’s assessment of the way in which Jesus became godly, the manner in which the incarnation occurred, is an extremely important insight.
If Jesus needed to grow into spiritual maturity, then, presumably, so do we. So the message of Christmas is not just the good news of God’s entering and working through the life of Jesus; it’s the marvelous possibility of God’s entering the lives of people such as ourselves throughout human history! But the realization of that possibility depends upon our openness to its happening, our willingness and desire for it to take place. Jesus seemed to indicate that his growth process was the result of his own openness and desire for it to happen. Remember the words he is reported to have said: ‘It is my meat (my very nourishment) to do the will of the Father.’
So the Christmas message of incarnation, God’s entering and working through the life of Jesus, places the spotlight first on him, but then the spotlight is turned in our direction! ‘Follow me,’ he seems to have said repeatedly: follow me with a spirit of openness and a keen desire to let that same Christmas miracle happen within you!
But what specifically does it mean to ‘follow’ Jesus and progressively to grow and develop spiritually as did he? How specifically does the metaphor of God’s incarnation, God’s becoming enfleshed in our humanity, take place? I understand Jesus’ invitation to ‘follow’ him to mean our adopting the values that he lived and taught, allowing those values to osmose into the totality of our being, to become the very essence of who and what we are. And that, of course, is a transformative process marked by continual, meaningful development toward maturity. Ultimately, all of the values that Jesus taught were simply expressions of love, seeking the highest good of one’s self and others, a lifestyle that Jesus said was the fulfillment of every law and every prophetic teaching. That, basically, is what it means for God to become incarnated in us, to ‘live’ in us.
So, this Christmas season, let us remember that it is not just a birth that we celebrate. Births are occurring everywhere, all the time, and those births may or may not ultimately make a huge positive difference as did the birth of Jesus and that of the founders of the other great religions of the world. That which makes a huge positive difference is when the reality of incarnation also progressively happens, not just in Jesus, but in us, as well.
The testimony of the Christmas message is that the incarnation did happen in Jesus, and that it is something wonderful to contemplate. But if it is not happening in us as well, of what value is the incarnation of Jesus to us personally? An ancient poet answered:
If Jesus in Bethlehem a thousand times
be born, but not in us,
it avails us nothing.
That which we call Christmas has indeed happened in Jesus; but the important, more personal question is: Is incarnation in the process of happening in us? And, if so, in what ways? And, finally, in what ways do spiritual values need still to be incarnated in our lives for the Christmas reality to come more fully in us? As that marvelous, transformative process occurs progressively, the joy of a truly authentic Christmas really comes!
Dr. John C. Whatley III, Senior Pastor
Community Church of the Midlands
Columbia, South Carolina