For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3.17)Hopeless
This day began like every other since the time of Moses. Jews (and Gentile worshipers of their God) arose and immediately undertook a complex cleansing ritual. Their wardrobe included several obligatory garments, some visible, some not. A series of prayers came next, followed by carefully observed etiquette for preparing and eating the first meal. After breakfast, men and boys went off to do what males were expected to do, while women and girls tended to their duties. Virtually everything they did adhered to an astringent set of edicts handed down centuries earlier to fugitive slaves.
These rules, known as “The Law,” governed everything from social structure to legal contracts, from labor and healthcare to family and sexual relationships. Even mourning, burial, and inheritance were tightly regulated. Obeying The Law surpassed honoring tradition. Every edict (and there were hundreds) came directly from God under threat of severe punishment. Thus, a watchdog mentality besieged the Jews. Scholars and lawyers scrutinized everyone’s behavior and rallied to condemn anyone judged to be religiously incorrect. The Law was too intricate and invasive, however, which meant diligent conformity to its demands was hopeless. So this day, like every other, was consumed by fear of mistakes, fueled by fear of humiliation, and founded on terror of enraging God.
But unlike any day before or since, this one will be forever remembered as humanity’s Independence Day. While her countrymen tiptoed around The Law as they scurried to enroll in a Roman census, an unwed mother went into labor. Shoved into a filthy stable—perhaps because no one would accommodate a maiden in her shameful condition, perhaps because The Law decreed childbirth unclean, and hence her imminent delivery disqualified her for better housing—she had only her loyal fiancé beside her. No midwife helped deliver her baby. No family women comforted her. There were just Mary and Joseph, two undoubtedly frightened young people, fighting to bring the miraculous Life inside her into the world. And when the Infant took His first breath, nothing would ever be the same. Freedom in its purest, truest sense was born that day—freedom from sin, fear, shame, and condemnation. Many years later, speaking to His followers, the Child would explain: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free… So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8.31-32,36)
The Reason for Jesus
It’s nigh unto impossible to get to Christmas Day without bumping into a button, billboard, bumper sticker, or church marquee exclaiming “Jesus is the Reason for the season.” Trite though the slogan is, it’s obviously true. Yet it also falls short of capturing the real meaning of Christmas. To grasp that, we must ask: What is the reason for Jesus? “That’s easy,” we say, as we open our Bibles to John 3.16: “God so loved the world he gave his one and only Son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Yes, there it is in a nutshell—except that’s not quite all of it. In explaining Himself to Nicodemus, a legalistic scholar, Jesus feels compelled to reveal what His reason is not: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” In other words, Christ’s purpose goes further than providing eternal hope. He comes to restore present hope. By refusing to condemn, He lifts The Law’s burden so we can experience total freedom. Freedom to blunder, yes, but also freedom to trust, to repent, and to know we are forgiven and accepted.
Finally, then, Jesus frees us from the watchdog mentality that persists to this day, despite His constant opposition to its mindset and methods. This is a major theme of His ministry—not only in His determination to overturn condemnation, but also in His insistence we respond to it properly. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven,” He says in Matthew 5.11-12. Defying criticism is firmly stitched into the reason for Jesus. We see it in Him. We see it in Mary and Joseph. We see it in anyone who is authentically free and filled with hope. In obedience to Him, we answer condemnation with rejoicing and gladness—in the words of the angels who announce His birth, with “good will to men.” I pray each of us celebrates this holiest of days for what it is: Independence Day. We are free indeed.
Wishing each of you a merry and most meaningful Christmas.
The Christ Child breathed His first breath and true freedom entered the world. Nothing would ever be the same again.
(Next: Yesterday's Tomorrow)