THE CHRISTMAS EXPERIENCE
By Pastor Glenn Pease
As Billy Graham put it, "Millions have missed the real meaning of Christmas." For the child it often means toys, tinsel and treats. For adults it often means buying, baking and bankruptcy. People spend a lot of time complaining about the cost of everything, but in a few weeks is forgotten until the next year when everything is even bigger and more expensive. I thought it would be interesting to see what we have to be thankful for in the present day perversion of Christmas. Just as the greatest change comes into a home after one has created by marriage is the birth of a child, so the greatest change that came into this world after its creation was the birth of the Christ Child. The event that made Christmas so radically affected this world that everywhere the good news of it has been known there is even a difference in the manner of man's ungodliness.
Because we live in a land where Christian principles have guided its formation even the folly of man is on a higher level than was the case before Christ came, or where He is not known. Man is not less sinful, but the coming of Christ has modified His expression of sin in many ways. Many of our complaints will turn to thanksgiving if we consider and compare the non-Christian celebration of Christmas in our land with the great holiday of the Roman's Saternalia. Keep in mind that Christmas was the holiday that took the place of this one. December 25th was the day that pagans worshiped the sun god and had a great feast. Constantine the Emperor felt that all Romans should have a feast on the same day, and so he set December 25th as the date of the birth of Christ. St. Augustine said that we as Christians worship not the sun, but Him who created the sun. This was 300 years after the death of Christ. Before this there was no set date to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and even in modern time there are those who celebrate it on Jan. 6th, which has been an accepted date for centuries. The day does not matter, for it is the truth of the incarnation that is important.
What was that pagan holiday like? It was a day of excitement as everyone gathered in the great Amphitheatre in Rome. The Emperor was there and all the leaders and people of wealth. The first trumpet would sound and the sports would begin, such as racing and boxing. The second trumpet would sound and the more exciting chariot races would take place. The third trumpet would sound the excitement mounted, as lions, tigers and leopards were let loose in the arena to tear each other to pieces. Finally the trumpets sound again and the ultimate in brutal entertainment begins. The Gladiators come in and men destroy each other to please the blood-thirsty crowd. This was the great festival of the Augustine age in contrast with the message of Christmas, which was a message of joy, peace and salvation. Let us be grateful that we live in A. D., and in a land where even the paganism of people has been Christianized.
Many criticize the celebration of Christmas on Dec. 25th because of what pagans did on this date. They say Christians should have nothing to do with it, but this is folly, for Christians changed it completely. All the words of the Bible were used by pagans before they became part of the Word of God. Every day of the week was used by pagans, and every kind of food was offered to pagan gods. Jesus came into this world to provide a way by which these pagans might become a part of the family of God, and when they did they began to offer to Jesus what they formerly gave to their gods. Their days, their devotion and their language all became dedicated to their Savior. Everything pagan was changed to become Christianized.
Millions do not know the meaning of Christmas, and they continue to remain ignorant in spite of explanations on every hand. Explaining to people that Christmas is the birthday of the Son of God into human history for the purpose of saving us and restoring us to peace with God does not seem to change them, and the reason is simply because the meaning of Christmas is not found in an explanation, but is found in an experience. You can explain to a person what it means to be married, but that explanation will not make them married. It is only the experience of marriage that makes people married. You can explain to a civilian what it means to be in the army, but that will not make him a soldier. Only the experienced of enlisting or of being drafted will make him a soldier. You can explain the meaning of Christmas, but that will not make a person a Christian. Only the experience of the meaning of Christmas will make a person a Christian. The question then is how does one gain this experience? The story of the wise men reveals three stages of experience involved in coming to a full experience of the meaning of Christmas.
I. AN EXPERIENCE OF PROVIDENCE. v. 2
The wise men were not so wise that they could have known of the birth of Jesus without the providential working of God. The first step in any spiritual experience begins with God. God acts in some way through nature, men, or circumstances to influence a life, and only then can a person respond to God. They could not have responded to the star if God had not revealed it to them. So it is with the true meaning of Christmas. People can never experience it unless God gets their attention focused on spiritual things. The Shepherds also needed the revelation of angels to get involved in Christmas. It remains true today that only those to whom God has revealed it by bringing them into fellowship with Himself through Jesus can know the true meaning of Christmas. They know it because they have experienced it-God and sinner reconciled.
The reason Matthew tells of the wise men who were Gentiles, and Luke tells of the shepherds who were Jews is to show that Christ is a universal Savior and King of all people. The angels had good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people, and this is made clear from the very start by the inclusion of both Jews and Gentiles. We might wonder why God selected these men. The Bible does not tell us why, but we know God does all things with good reason. Bible scholars see very good reasons why God would choose these astrologers from the world of paganism to receive this revelation and guidance. They were doubtless disciples of one the best religions before Christ came. Much of what they practiced would seem horrible to us, but in comparison to other pagan religions they were on a high level.
Zoroaster 7 centuries before Christ taught that man needs light from outside himself, and so they began to worship the stars as symbols of that light. They had a great deal of interest in light, and not in idols as most other religions. They believed in immortality, judgment, prayer, the sacredness of marriage and honesty. God had not left Himself without a witness among these people, and they had responded to the light they had, and so God gave more light in the form they were sure to notice, and that was in the miraculous star of Bethlehem.
Many feel that these wise men were aware of the prophecies of the Old Testament, and that they were looking for a coming of a king revealed by a star. Baalam prophesied in Num. 24:17, "A star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel." Those who seek shall find, and God honors this principle even in the pagan world.
The star that rose at Bethlehem
Has never set. It glows for them
Who seek its light. 'Tis leading yet.
They saw the star, and they alone
Who longed for it. For men like them
The star that shone on Bethlehem
Will never set.
God continues to speak today in the lives of people all over the world. Only those who are looking for His signs, and who are willing to respond to His providential leading will ever experience the real meaning of Christmas. The second stage is-
II. AN EXPERIENCE OF PERSEVERANCE.
The wise men not only saw the star, but they sought the Son it signified. They responded to revelation with enthusiasm. This is an essential requirement in any religious experience. Most men did not see the star because they were not looking, but there were probably others who did see it, but who made no attempt to follow it. The Scribes knew about it from the testimony of the wise men, but to know and not go is to miss the experience of Christmas. There are many today who are satisfied to see and not follow. They have a spectator religion, and a grandstand piety that never gets into the game, but only looks on. Vance Havner said that many instead of standing on the promises are just sitting on the premises.
The wise men proved their wisdom by getting out of their tower and traveling to Jerusalem. Burne-Jones once told Ruskin that of the stories of the Nativity he liked best the story of the shepherds. Ruskin replied, "No, the shepherds had nothing to loose by coming. The wise men showed greater faith in leaving a distant home to seek Christ at the appearance of the stars." It took a great deal of faith to set out on such a journey over field and fountain moor and mountain. The Bible indicates that the star is not visible to them on their journey, that is why they came to Jerusalem, for they thought a king would be born in the capital city. But no one seemed to know anything about it when they got there. That would be enough to shake their faith, but they still believed and persevered.
This is so typical of the way God works. He gives a guiding sign and expects a person to follow it to the best of their ability. Then God leaves them in the dark for a time to test their perseverance to see if they will give up and go back, or search until they find. God does not lead them by the nose, but expects them to demonstrate their earnestness by a constant search for more light. Those who allow dead ends to halt their search will never find God's best. It is interesting to see how God gave more light to these wise men. God used even His enemies to accomplish His will. The star got the wise men on their way, but the Scriptures gave them the specific location, and it came to them by the help of Herod the hostile hypocrite. When Herod heard that they sought a king he was troubled and all Jerusalem as well. They were troubled because they feared what Herod might do. He had murdered a number of people already to protect his throne. It was through him, however, that the wise men learned that Bethlehem was their goal.
The whole Christmas story is an amazing account of the providence of God on behalf of those who persevere in faith. A proclamation from a pagan Emperor brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in the first place. The evil planning of Herod gave the wise men the information they needed, and the gifts of the wise men were just what Mary and Joseph needed to escape to Egypt from the wrath of Herod. God uses His enemies to outwit themselves. Great forces of evil do exist and cause must suffering and sorrow, as Herod did. But the plan of God cannot fail, and it will prevail over all such forces.
The wise men obeyed all of God's leading, and God then gave them further guidance, and they had the joy of worshiping the King. Walter Mayer said years ago on the radio, "Jesus always brings happiness to those who seek Him. Don't trust religious fanatics who are dark, dismal, defeated, who bar smiles, laughter, and mirth as sinful, and who think tears, terror, and torture the marks of a true Christian faith." Perseverance pays because it brings joy, and it leads to the final experience necessary to arrive at the full meaning of Christmas.
III. AN EXPERIENCE OF PERSONAL COMMITMENT. v. 11
They had seen the star and heard the Scripture, but now they find the Son-the object of their search, and their wisdom is displayed again, for they fall down and worship Him. They did not worship the star, the Scripture, Herod, Mary or Joseph, or their rich gifts, but they worshiped Him alone. They had arrived at the goal of their search, and they experienced the true meaning of Christmas. No one ever knows the meaning of Christmas who has not fallen at the feet of Jesus to worship and to give of themselves and of their possessions. Note the order, for they first fell down and worshiped, and then they gave gifts. All the gifts in the world will not bring joy into the life of one who has not first given himself to Jesus. Many secular people give gifts to charities, and this is good, but it is not the meaning of Christmas. That involves first giving yourself to Christ, and worshiping Him.
Christmas means Christ must be Lord of my life. The wise men did not have near the evidence that we have today to bring them to their knees. He was only a baby, but by faith they believed. Now He is at the right hand of the Father, having lived and died to redeem us, but the same experience is necessary for us today. If Christmas does not cause us to fall at the feet of Christ and confess our sins and crown Him Lord of Life, then it is no more than a pagan holiday, and none are the better or wiser for observing it. The wise men could have been disappointed when they arrived at their goal. All they found was a commonplace baby in a commonplace home with commonplace parents. They had to leave so quickly they did not get to know them very well at all. It was such a brief encounter and they were on the road again. Was it worth it? Yes it was, for they experienced the presence of Jesus as their King. They did not know all that we know about what that King would do in this world, but they acknowledged Him as their King, they worshiped Him, and they gave Him gifts, and that is what the Christmas experience is all about.
There are many guesses as to what the gifts of the wise men stood for, but one thing is sure, and that is that represent the giving of ones best. God wants our life and all that we have devoted to His will under the Lordship of Christ. If you have never received Jesus as your Savior I urge you to heed these word of William Law who wrote, "When the first spark of a desire after God arises in thy soul, cherish it with all thy care, give all thy heart unto it, follow it as gladly as the wise men of the East followed the star from heaven that appeared to them. It will do for thee as the star did for them. It will lead thee to the birth of Jesus, not in a stable at Bethlehem of Judaea, but to the birth of Jesus in thine own soul." Bow at the feet of Jesus and receive Him as your Lord and Savior and you will experience the true meaning of Christmas.