By Pastor Glenn Pease
December in Peru is just as hot as July. The jungle is steaming and the insects are ferocious. Yet in that jungle setting more than 300 people from the Wycliff Bible Translators celebrate Christmas. The twinkling Christmas tree lights are not on a pine or fur tree, but on a banana or palm tree. It is radically different from our idea of Christmas, but it is nevertheless a precious time for the families there, and the children who grow up with this environment. They think ours is not really a true Christmas experience.
Bernie May is a pilot for Wycliff in that group, and his 3 boys were really excited as Christmas approached some years back. He had to fly some medical supplies to an Indian tribe in the jungle, but he was scheduled to return to his family on Dec. 23rd. He made the 5 hour fight and landed on the river near the Indian village. He would return the next day, but in the night fog and rain came and he could not fly out. It rained all day and night, and Christmas Eve was the same. He was so frustrated he slipped on his poncho and trudged down to the river edge. He crawled out onto the wing of the plane and sat there feeling desperately sorry for himself. It was Christmas Eve and there he was stuck in the jungle, and he would not be with his family on Christmas. That was what he most wanted in the world.
He sloshed his way back to the hut and laid down in his hammock feeling homesick, and he began to think. This is what Christmas was for Jesus. He was not home, for his home was heaven with the Father, and He was on earth far from His heavenly family. Christmas for Jesus was not going home, but leaving home. So it was also for Joseph and Mary. They were not home, but were far away from home and their family. It was a costly Christmas for those who made the first Christmas a reality. The rain finally stopped so that by Christmas night Bernie was home with family, but he had learned this lesson-there is a lot of costs involved in Christmas besides the presents.
Christmas cost him a lot of misery, for had it been any other day he could have missed it and not been so lonely, but because it was Christmas the hurt was so much harder to bear. Had there been no Christmas, however, he would not have been in the jungle in the first place, for he was there because Christ came into the world to seek and save the lost. He was a part of that on going effort to fulfill the plan of Jesus to reach the whole world with the good news that unto you is born a Savior. Had Jesus never come, He never would have gone. So Christmas cost Him plenty, and it cost Him a life of compassion for other people. It cost Him a radical change in His life work, and because He cared it cost Him the loss of precious time with His family.
The real cost of Christmas is not just in the multiplied millions of presents that people purchase. In the United States alone people spend many billions of dollars for gifts. In the 1800's Christmas presents were for children, and adults gave simple things to each other like fountain pens and handkerchiefs. After World War I there was fear that the boom time of the war years would be followed by a stagnant economy, and so there was an all out push to get people to buy more expensive gifts. It was implied that the more expensive gift you gave the more you cared. In the New York Times on Dec. 15, 1919 this ad appeared that began the upward spiral of the cost of Christmas. It said, "Don't give your family and friends frivolous gifts that are sure to disappoint. Buy them worthy gifts that will let them know how much you care." This has led to Christmas being very costly in a monetary way.
As we focus on the biblical characters in the cast of the first Christmas drama we discover each of them had to pay a cost. Joseph and Mary had an enormous cost. It cost them a great deal of stress and loss of reputation. Joseph had to be devastated by the news that Mary was with child. Mary would also be hurt by his doubt, and heavy with frustration in trying to explain the virgin birth. It cost them the comfort of home to get to Bethlehem, and even more so during their exile in Egypt. They were not prepared for such a disruption of their lives. The birth of any baby brings added costs, but Jesus added costs to their lives that were extra-ordinary. God's greatest gift was freely given, but it was costly for those who first received it. There are all kinds of hidden costs we do not know about. The loneliness and frustration of having no room in the Inn, being forced to deliver a baby in the stable, denial of all civil rights, and being forced to flee from your homeland.
Mary and Joseph had the natural joy that a Son was born, but it was far from a season to be jolly, for they were surrounded by human folly and cruelty. They saved some money by not having to pay for a room, but the discount for spending the night in the stable did not make up for the cost in loss of dignity and feelings of being left out. It was trial and trouble, and it got even worse when Herod set out to kill the child. The good news is that their experience makes it clear that it is no sign you are out of God's will when things do not go right, and much goes wrong, and there is great cost in following His will.
The wise men were committed to a costly and time-consuming journey to travel to the land the star led them too. It costs them a great deal of time and money, for they brought expensive gifts to the King. They also risked their lives, for had Herod discovered in time that they were going to depart without telling him the location of the Christ child they would have been killed. It cost them a great deal of research and thought as well. It cost them labor of mind as well as of body.
The shepherds did not pay a heavy cost, for they were closest to the Inn where Jesus was born. They doubtless lost a night's sleep as no one could go to sleep after what they experienced that night. Their cost was minimal likely, but we have no idea how many sheep they may have lost by leaving them to go to the manger. It may have been more costly than we realize. The shepherds were not the only ones to lose a night's sleep over Christmas. Matt. 2:3 says, "When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all of Jerusalem with him." Herod was a very insecure man. He was so threatened by the news of a birth of a King that this greatest news was bad news to him. Christmas cost Herod his peace of mind, and when he was nervous all the people were nervous, for he would murder anyone when he felt threatened.
Because Christmas cost Herod his sense of security it cost a number of innocent families to lose their newborn babies. Herod ordered all boy babies of Bethlehem two years old and under to be killed. Imagine if that was your two-year-old son or grandson, and you can see that Christmas cost these families a price that was way too high. Scholars estimate on the basis of the population of Bethlehem at that time that there would be between ten and twenty boy babies who were killed. It is a relief that it was not hundreds, but for those ten to twenty families it was as bad as it could be, for Christmas cost them the loss of a son. Someone suggested that Jesus may have experienced human guilt when He grew up, for He was alive and all of those other babies were not because of Him. It was Herod who was the source of the evil, but it was the coming of the baby King, which provoked this evil against the innocent.
We would all prefer to focus on the heavenly hosts rather than the hatred of Herod. We would rather point to the manger, the Magi, and the messages from heaven rather than this unpleasant picture of the murder of the innocent. But that was part of the cost of Christmas. Light came into the world, but men loved darkness rather than light, and the result has been war between the forces of light and darkness. Herod tried to kill Christmas by killing Christ, and this wicked rejection of God's gift has continued all through history. Christmas has cost multitudes their lives down through the centuries. But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord, and so it is worth the cost. Even if Christmas costs you your life it is the bargain of a lifetime, for to die in Christ is gain, for in Christ there is victory over death. Those 10 to 20 boy babies lost their earthly life for Jesus, but Jesus later died for them that they might have eternal life.
Christmas is clearly inadequate without the cross, for the birth of Christ alone was very costly, and by itself it did not save anyone. On the cross Jesus more than recouped the loses, and He made all those for whom Christmas was so costly rich forever. Evil made Christmas costly, but that is why Jesus had to come. Had the world been wonderful and righteous there would be no need for a Savior. It was just because the world was so filled with such hellish hatred like that of Herod that the incarnation was a necessity for man's salvation. Jesus could have washed His hands of the whole thing and cast the whole world into hell, but instead He paid the price of coming into the world to take upon Himself the full blow of evil in order that man might have a way out of hate and darkness into love and light.
The negative cost of Christmas, however, has been a reality all through history. Even Christians have had to pay the price of conflict because of Christmas. The Anglican Church decorated their churches for Christmas. The Puritans felt this was pagan and they went all out to rid the church of such pagan influence. They went to such extremes that they made it illegal to celebrate Christmas, and so we have the paradox of some Christians being sent to jail for celebrating the birth of their Savior, and the cost was being imposed by other Christians. The Puritans were very godly people, but their anti-Christmas stand earned them a negative reputation they have never been able to live down. It took America a long time to come out of the anti-Christmas slump. Dec. 25 was just another day until 1856. It was just another workday in Boston as late as 1870, and the Public schools were open on Christmas.
Historians tell us that had America been settled only by the Puritans of England we may not have had much of a Christmas celebration even yet. But many of the Christians who came to America came from Sweden, Germany, Ireland, Poland, and Italy where there had never been anti-Christmas movement. The result was that America became a melting pot where the Christmas customs of all the world came together and this gave us a Christmas celebration on such a grand scale that even the world of non-Christians joins in the celebration.
There was a great cost for Christ to bring Christmas into the world. Paul says in II Cor. 8:9, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich." Jesus left heavens brightest day to enter earth's darkness night. The cost of Christmas for Christ was bankruptcy. Before Christmas He owned the cattle on a thousand hills and the wealth in every mine. His riches would make billionaires look like paupers in comparison. Everything was His, for He made it all, and without Him was not anything made that had been made. He was equal with the Father, and so was the wealthiest being in the universe. He could have given whole worlds to each person, but instead He gave His Person to the whole world. He gave up equality with the Father and became poor. He went from riches to rags and from splendorous garments to swaddling clothes. He entered into poverty. The cost of Christmas to Christ is beyond calculation.
Geoffery Bell, a missionary to China, in his book When Iron Gates Yield, tells of his experience one Christmas Eve. He had been a served a meal by his Chinese host, and then joined him as he went below to the stable to give the horses more hay. It was not very pleasant as he entered that atmosphere of manure and straw and the smell of animals. He writes, "I stood suddenly still in that oriental manger. To think that my Savior was born in a place like this. To think that He came all the way from heaven to some wretched Eastern stable, and what is more, to think that He came for me. How men beautify the cross and the crib, as if to hide the fact that at birth we resigned Him to the stench of beasts, and at death exposed Him to the shame of rogues. God forgive us.
Love to the uttermost, love to the uttermost,
Love pass all measuring His love must be;
From heaven's highest glory to earth's deepest shame,
This is the love of my Savior to me.
I returned to warm, clean room which I enjoyed, bowed to thankfulness and worship."
The cost of Christmas for Christ was so staggering that to dwell on it will lead you to wonder and then to worship. Such a sacrifice demands that we bow before Him as our Lord and King. There is nothing we can give to Christ like worship, for that alone conveys our partial grasp of the magnitude of the cost of Christmas to Him. It is costly to be unique and Jesus was the most unique person ever to be born. As Dr. Hugh Pyle said, "He was the earthly child of a heavenly Father and the heavenly child of an earthly mother. No wonder He bent the calendar of the world around that manger cradle."
We are grateful for the impact of Christ on history, but why pay such a price? It was because this is what it cost to redeem man and reconcile Him to God. This is the price for what God wanted. He wanted man saved and it was costly. It was not free to God to get this goal accomplished. It cost Him a Son, and it cost His Son His earthly life. It cost Him the cross to be born at Christmas. He was born to die, and die He did that we might be saved. We are saved freely, for it is a gift that Jesus bought for us, but the fact is it cost Jesus everything. Grace is free to receive, but it was costly to give.
The Christmas spirit is that spirit that gives as Jesus did to meet the needs of others, even when they do not deserve it or appreciate it. This is costly, and it is far more easily preached than practiced. It means being Christ like in sharing your riches of grace with those who are in such poverty that they do not grasp the value of what you seek to give. The cost of Christmas is giving your best regardless of how the gift is received. Jesus came to His own and His own received Him not. He knew they wouldn't before He came, but He still came, for that is the cost He was willing to pay to give man what He needed, which was a Savior.
The highest cost of all is for those who do not receive the free gift of Christ. He became poor that we might be rich, but if we do not receive Him, we remain poor forever. There is a cost involved in receiving the free gift, but it is nothing like the cost of not receiving the gift. This is one of the paradoxes of Christmas. It costs more not to receive the gift than to receive it. Those who do not receive Christ as Savior must pay the cost of their own sin, and that means they will be bankrupt forever, and never be able to get out of the debt of hell.
The day God dropped the babe of Bethlehem into time was more costly to the world than all the bombs that have ever been dropped. God's gift of life, love and light has blown away all excuses, and man is left exposed for what he is, and that is a rebel. The Christmas message leaves him no alternative but to come and worship, or to go to war. All are forced to make the costliest decision of their lives. They either receive the gift of a Savior, or they pay for their own sin forever. You pay the cost now of surrender, or you pay the cost later of eternal warfare. Anybody who is cost comparison conscience will see the utter folly of not being willing to pay the costs involved in surrender and worship of the Savior God gave the world at Christmas.
Nothing is so costly as the Christ-less Christmas of those who will not receive God's gift. People will spend a fortune on lights, but reject the light of the world. They will pay a fortune for gifts, but reject the free gift of God. They will put time and money into a tree, but never receive the forgiveness purchased for them on the tree of Calvary. It is the same old story-no room for Jesus.
Room for pleasure, room for business,
But for Christ the crucified
Not a place that He can enter
In the hearts for which He died.
May God help us all not to get so caught up in earthly presence that we miss the presence of God. His presence is His present to us, and if we miss this we miss His best and pay to high a cost for Christmas. Let us not be foolish, but make sure we get God's best by receiving all He gives us in Christ.
Despised-forsaken-must He longer stand
Outside the door, with His dear, wounded hand
Still knocking? Nay! O Christ, the crucified,
Come, and forever in our hearts abide.
And, for our Christmas gift, we pray thee, bring
Life's truest happiness to us, O King!
The love that far exceeds our highest thought,
The riches which thy blood for us has bought.