By Pastor Glenn Pease
Mr. and Mrs. Nudelman were on a 50th wedding anniversary trip to Paris where they visited the Louvre. As they slowly walked past the masterpieces of the ages, Mrs. Nudelman stopped in front of a huge Renaissance painting called, The Child In The Manger. As she stood there, Mr. Nudelman asked her why she looked so puzzled. "Don't you know what the scene is about?" "Certainly I know what the scene shows, but I can't figure something out". He asked, "what's to figure out?" She responded, "Here is a family living in a stable with animals, the floor is dirt, covered with straw, and the little baby is almost naked: How could they afford to have their picture painted?"
People do not see the same thing just because they are looking at the same thing. This is especially true when people look at the nativity scene. A mother was explaining the scene to her young daughter. "See, next to the manger there is a man, and his name is Joseph, and in the manger there is a little baby, the baby Jesus, and the woman in the picture is reaching over to pick up the child. Now who do you think she is?" The girl thought for awhile, and then she said, "the baby-sitter." Everyone is conditioned by their own experience to see different things in the Christmas scene. The eyes play a major role in seeing the details of Christmas.
The shepherds were not sleeping, but were watching their flocks by night, and thus they were wide awake with their eyes searching the darkness for any threat to their sheep. God honored their caring eyes with a sight that has never been equaled. The Angel of the Lord appeared to them, and their first response was that of terror. The radical brightness of God's glory filled them with fear. The angel had to assure them that what they were seeing was not a threat, but a blessing. He told them of a sign to look for; a baby wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger. Their eyes were to be their guide to the gift of God.
Then a great company of angels appeared, filling both their eyes with glory and their ears with praise. Their response was, "let's go to Bethlehem and see." Seeing is believing, can be a valid motto, and it was for them, for they had received a message that only the eyes could confirm. They had to see the sign. And when they did, verse 17 says, "Having seen Him they spread the word", and verse 20 says, "They praised God for all they had heard and seen." The shepherds became the first eye-witnesses of the Christmas story.
The story of the wise men follows the same theme. They were not sheep watchers, they were star watchers in the night. God also bore witness to them through their eyes. They saw the Star of Bethlehem and knew it was a sign of wonder, and that God had sent a great king into the world. They too followed their eyes to the Christ child, and became part of the Christmas scene, and the first eye-witnesses to the Gentile world.
The point of all of this is, God made the message of Christmas a visual message to appeal to the eyes. Christmas from day one has always been a season for seeing. By His coming into the world Jesus changed how men see reality. He changed how man sees God and history, and how he sees the role of man and the goal of God. In the first stanza of a Christmas hymn, I expressed it this way-
Before Jesus came to earth
God just seemed so far away.
But now because of His birth,
He's here with us on life's way.
Everything is different now,
Since the Lord came into view.
Before Jesus, now we bow,
For He's made everything new.
This is seen in the fact that Christmas is the season of the most radical visual changes in the church and the culture. There is no other time of the year when we decorate the church and see the whole community put up lights, trees, and decorations. What is this massive visual change of the environment? It is a witness to the eye-witness nature of the Christmas message.
The message of Christmas is, the invisible God became visible, and the eyes of man beheld Him in the flesh. The love of God became visible in a life that could be seen. The goodness of God was no longer only a message to the ears, but now it was a message to the eyes of man. Again, I said it in a chorus,
God you just didn't mean maybe
When you said this world you love.
You sent us this Christmas baby
To show us how much you love.
When the shepherds saw the baby, that was the beginning of eye-witness Christianity. The gospel, ever since, has been an appeal to the eyes. Turn your eyes upon Jesus and see who God is; see how much He loves; see the price He pays to save you. Every light at Christmas; every decoration; every shining piece of paper and plastic is to shout at us, look and see. See the salvation God has given us in the gift of His dear Son. Christmas is a holiday of the eye. It is a season of the sight where seeing is the source of our pleasure and delight.
Let me share with you what I saw for the first time as we approach this Christmas. I saw that I had one more baby than I thought I had. You do to. Jesus was born as the universal baby. Whose baby was Jesus? Was He God's baby, Joseph baby, Mary's baby? Yes He was all of those, but the Bible stresses that Jesus was born to the people He came to seek and to save. The angel said to the shepherds, "A Savior has been born to you." Not, a Savior has been born to Mary and Joseph, but the baby is born to you. This is the same kind of language we see in the prophecy of Isaiah 9:6, "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on His shoulders. And He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."
The message of Christmas is not that God so loved Mary and Joseph that He gave them a wondrous baby. Not even, God so loved Israel, He gave them a wondrous baby. The message is, God so loved the world He gave the whole world a wondrous baby. The Christ child is everybody's child.
There are no childless people in this world for everyone has one child born to them, the baby of Bethlehem. Do men have a baby born to them? Yes! Do singles have a baby born to them? Yes! Everybody that God loves has had this baby born to them, and God loves the whole world. You can't go to anyone on this planet and say Jesus was not born to you. He was born to all, and He died for all, for He is God's gift to all. I thought I only had three babies, but now I see I have four. Jesus not only died for me, He was born for me so that I might through Him be a part of God's family. Everyone who accepts this gift of the Christmas baby is part of the family of God. Our new birth as babes in God's kingdom depends upon our receiving the babe of Bethlehem as our baby, born to us as our Savior. If men do not take God's child as theirs, He will not take them as His child. The gift has to be both given and received for the circle of love to be completed. We must receive God's Son to be received as God's sons. John 1:12 says, "..To all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God."
Christmas is a celebration of the birthday of Jesus, but also our own, for the two are directly connected. Our birthday into the kingdom of God is directly related to our acceptance of the gift of God, the babe of Bethlehem. The celebration of His birthday is our acknowledgment that we too have a new birthday to celebrate because of Him. If He was never born to us, we could never be born again into the family of God. Christmas is the celebration of His birth to us and our birth to Him.
I had not seen the Gospel in this unique way before. Like most, I saw Jesus as my Savior from the point of view of the end of His life. But now He can be seen as Savior from the beginning of His life. The shepherds and the wise men were likely dead by the time Jesus went to the cross, but He was their Savior, for He was born a Savior. E. H. Divall expressed this in poetry,
God gave this gift to me-
Mine own to be!
Lo, all my days
Henceforward shall be spent in living praise;
My life-my lips forever shall proclaim
His holy name.
He gave this gift to me-
Mine own to be;
And I, with faith no longer cold and dim
Lift up mine eyes to look on Him
Before whom angels fall
And see in Him my all in all.
The Christmas Gospel is not complete without the death and resurrection, but anyone who receives the babe of Bethlehem as their gift from God, accepts all that He did in life and death as part of that gift. The baby is our Savior because of what He grew up to do for us.
This gift of baby Jesus was a physical gift. It was one that could be seen and heard and touched. God's gift was a gift to the senses. He was Immanuel-God with us. Not just God for us, God above us, or God around us, but God with us-as visible light. In John 1:9, we read these amazing words, "The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world." Jesus gives everyone the light they need to see God's love and become a child of God by receiving Him. The Christmas message is a visible message. It is light that can be seen. Wise men who are looking still see it. There will be no one in history who wants to be a child of God who will not see the light who leads them to Christ. He is not the light of Israel only, or the light of the church only, He is the light of the world.
This should first of all make us stop complaining about all the massive decorating and lighting the world does. You can't get too extravagant in celebrating the Savior of the world. The world does not know it, of course, and decorates for it's own pleasure and profit. But for those of us who know the gift of God, the luxurious decorations are very appropriate signs of Him who came to give us life abundant and life eternal. It is the season for seeing, and we are to see in all the lights and colors signs that point us to the gift of God. A gift is a visual word. It says to the receiver- I love you. Win Couchman, a female Bible teacher, tells of how a visible gift can say these words.
One Christmas Eve her three children had symptoms of the flu. She had to call her parents and tell them they could not come for Christmas. It was a sad night, and it took her a long time to get to sleep. But early on Christmas morning she heard her father's truck pull up in the yard. He had decided to bring Christmas to them. He had packages and food, and to her surprise he had cut off the top of their Christmas tree with the star on it, and brought that along too. She cried with joy when she saw that visible expression of her father's love, and she wrote, "Oh, how like God my father was that Christmas morning. Our heavenly Father took His dearest treasure, His star, His only begotten and entirely beloved Son, and sent Him to us. The Son consented because He loved us and knew our great need. Heaven went without it's chief ornament while He came to be born and live and die on earth."
If you look there are visible signs everywhere in this season of seeing. W. M. Martin is a collector of stamps who specializes in Christmas stamps. The first ones to be issued in the early 1930's are with a Christmas rose or poinsettia. Then in 1939 Brazil issued one with the three wise men and Star of Bethlehem. When the U.S. came out with it's first Christmas stamp in 1962, this popularized it and many nations followed. Today there are so many countries that issue Christmas stamps, you can make it a hobby just to keep up on this specialized area of collecting. My point is not to encourage stamp collecting, but to point out just how visible the Christmas holiday is. It is depicted in the visible world of stamps as no other event in history is.
The history of Christmas cards started earlier, back in the middle of the 1800's. At first they were pretty but neutral. Flowers and other nature scenes were common. Then they became more Biblical with the nativity scene. By 1880 the Christmas card exploded into a fad. Louis Prang, a German immigrant, became the father of the American Christmas card.
He started to offer prizes of up to $2000 for the best art. This tempted even well known painters to submit their art. By 1882, Prang was selling over five million cards in America. Today there are hundreds of millions sold. There is no other event in history that motivates such a visual depiction of it. The Christmas scenes have been painted and printed to be seen by more eyes than any other event. Christmas was God's saying, see-see how much I love you, see my nature, glory and my love. Ever since, seeing is the essence of Christmas.
The first Christmas was seen only by a few. God put just one great star in the sky, and it was apparently visible only to the Magi. The angels that lit up the fields were only seen by the shepherds. Caesar, the Roman senate, and the people of the Empire saw no hint that history was changed by the birth of one tiny baby in Bethlehem. But today because of the impact of that baby on history there is no way to escape the visible changes that announce the celebration of His birth.
This is the season of buying and giving of presents, and even this is symbolic of the Incarnation. All through history God had given His people love, guidance, mercy and a host of invisible gifts. But at Christmas God gave His most visible gift. We celebrate this gift by giving visible gifts to all whom we love. These gifts are all the more conspicuous by being wrapped in special paper with ribbons. We make it the most visible expression of our love that we can, because we are celebrating God's most visible expression of His love.
There is no other time of the year that we have to rearrange our homes so as to fit a tree into it. This is a radical visible change. We do this radical thing because this is a conspicuous way to make Christmas a visible celebration. It is hard not to notice a tree in the living room. Then we put brightly wrapped presents beneath it and beautiful lights on it. The tree becomes a focus of our attention. This is not good if you idolize the tree, but if you see it as a symbol of God's heart, evergreen with life-giving love expressed in visible gifts, it can help keep you stay Christ-centered at Christmas.
The Christmas tree was originally the present-bearer. It represented the source of all gifts, and the gifts were hung on the tree rather than placed under it. In 1836 this custom was described, "The sturdiest branch drooped with its burden of books, chessmen, puzzles, etc., for Julius, a stripling of 13; dolls, birds, beasts, and boxes were hung on the lesser limbs. A regiment of soldiers had alighted on one bough, and Noah's ark was anchored to another, and to all the slender branches were attached cherries, plums, strawberries and fine peaches, as tempting and at least as sweet as the fruits of paradise."
Let us not be as those who have eyes but do not see. Let us in this season of seeing, see everything around us as symbols of the visible gift of God in the babe of Bethlehem. Let every light you see make you thank God for the light of the world. Let every Christmas tree you see make you thank God for the Son of God who died on the tree to give you life that is evergreen-that is, eternal. Let every present you see make you thank God for His Present. Let every color you see make you thank God for the color and the festive atmosphere that will be ours forever in the New Jerusalem, because of His Gift. Let your eye gate be ever open to take in this message, and be filled with the light of His love. Let this be your prayer-
Lord I want to hear you say to me
I gave my best for you to see.
Look around and look above,
In every light see my love.
Let lights of earth and lights of heaven
Remind you of the Light I've given.
In every tree and decoration
See the glory of my salvation.
In every gift you will receive
See my Gift-in Him believe.
Let this truth fill your whole being,
Christmas is the Season for Seeing.