Thanksgiving has passed, and the Christmas season has officially begun. Although malls and big box stores put out their Christmas displays even before our kids were trick-or-treating, most people mark the day after Thanksgiving as the time to begin celebrating the birth of Jesus.
The vast majority of Americans recognize this holiday. Businesses will close, schools will dismiss, families will gather together to eat and exchange gifts. Sure, some will simply say, “Happy Holidays,” in deference to the holy days of other faiths, but the majority of American children will go to bed on Christmas Eve excited about the next morning. Although quite commercialized and secularized, Christmas is still officially a celebration of the birth of Jesus, a real baby born over 2000 years ago.
The question is not whether this holiday centers around the birth of Jesus. You can’t observe Christmas but claim that it’s not about Jesus. It would be like celebrating the Fourth of July but denying the fact that the United States achieved independence from England. It’s impossible and illogical to remove Jesus from Christmas.
The only question, then, is about the nature of this child. Who exactly is this baby Jesus of whom we sing and make much of during the month of December?
There is an old adage that God created man in his image, and then man decided to return the favor. This is certainly true with Jesus. While a high percentage of our population believes in Jesus, we differ greatly on how we view him.
If you’ve ever seen the movie Talledega Nights, you understand how this works. In what is undoubtedly the most memorable scene of that film, Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) and his sidekick Cal Naughton, Jr. (John C. Reilly) have a discussion about who Jesus is to them. Ricky Bobby likes to picture Jesus as a baby with golden fleece diapers and tiny, little fat balled up fists. Cal responds, “I like to picture my Jesus in a tuxedo T-shirt, because it says I want to be formal, but I’m here to party, too. Because I like to party, so I like my Jesus to party.”
Sure, it’s just a comedy, but isn’t there a significant thread of truth running through this classic scene? Haven’t we, as Americans, taken this baby Jesus and molded him into the image we most desire?
Or, to quote the question asked in the classic Christmas hymn: “What child is this who laid to rest in Mary’s lap is sleeping?” I’m not sure that our culture can give a unified answer to that question.
While opinions about Jesus are as varied as the selection of plastic Santas available for purchase at Walmart, most conceptions of Jesus fall into one of four general categories:
- The “All About Love” Baby Jesus. In this narrative, Jesus was sent by God to show the world how to love perfectly. His death on a cross wasn’t a payment for sin, but rather a tragic result of the world not wiling to accept someone who loved so well. This Jesus greatly magnifies the grace and love of God, however, he minimizes and / or denies completely the existence of sin. Moral choices aren’t an issue with him. Jesus’ daddy, God the Father, is the kindly old grandfather in the sky who looks at our mistakes (sin isn’t a commonly used word in this view) and simply says, “Well, boys will be boys. I can overlook those sins…I mean…mistakes.” Baby Jesus doesn’t care about your moral choices as long as you talk a lot about love.
- The “Genie in a Bottle” Baby Jesus. This is a favorite baby Jesus among Americans. In this narrative, Jesus came as the giver of all good gifts, and, hey Jesus, how about throwing a few of those good gifts my way? Jesus died for our sins (thanks, Jesus!) as the final good gift he will bestow upon us in this life. While we are here, Jesus acts like a cosmic gum ball dispenser, giving us good things. Those “good things” generally come in the form of material and physical health blessings. Things like sacrifice, “take up your cross daily,” and suffering are ignored in this view. It’s more of a Quid Pro Quo type relationship. “Jesus, I follow you, you give me a blessed life, right?”
- The “Great Teacher Not a Savior” Baby Jesus. In this narrative, Jesus isn’t divine at all. Jesus was a great rabbi. Perhaps the greatest rabbi. His mission was to focus our attention on injustices, the poor, the orphans and widows. Sin (although that exact word might not be used) is being too much of a consumer or leaving too large a carbon footprint on this earth. This Jesus calls us to change the world around us for the better, perhaps by working in a soup kitchen or holding a placard in a protest march. Following Jesus means following a great teacher, not worshipping God.
Notice how there are elements of truth in each of these views. I could easily quote verses from the Bible to support any one of those views of Jesus. However, they miss the big picture. Perhaps they can point to a verse or a few verses, but they disregard the larger corpus of Scripture.
What is Christmas, really? Who is this baby Jesus, the one whose birth we celebrate?
I think Peter’s answer summarizes it best. When Jesus walked on this earth — just as it is two thousand years later — there existed varied opinions about him and why he came. However, those who were closest to him knew the truth. They understood that Jesus was more than just a great teacher or a prophet. So when Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter quickly responded: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
There is a fourth baby Jesus whose birth you may want to celebrate this December: The Messiah Baby Jesus. Although born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, this Jesus has existed for all of eternity (Colossians 1:15-16). This Jesus lived among us, but died on a cross as punishment for our sin (Romans 3:23-24). Only through this Jesus are we able to have a relationship with God (John 14:6). This Jesus calls us to give up our lives to follow him (Matthew 10:38-39). In this Jesus we find eternal life (John 3:16).
Like Cal Naughton, Jr., we all would like Jesus to conform to our desires and fit our likeness. We want to follow a Jesus we’ve created. However, we do ourselves great harm when we worship a Jesus who isn’t that much different from us. I make a horrible god and a terrible savior. When I’m in charge, my life tends to get pretty chaotic and rather miserable. If the Jesus I follow is just like me, then I’m in real trouble.
This Christmas, I’m excited to celebrate the birth of a Jesus whose coming changed everything, including me. I hope you are as well.
Kevin Mills is the Lead Pastor of Northway Church in Macon, Georgia.