Summary: Christmas is about a miracle; a unique event in the world that God does through people like you and me. You are God’s means to change the world.
What do you suppose God looks like? We have no shortage of images of God. In fact, the Christian faith has inspired more artwork than any other movement in history. We have sculptures, paintings, mosaics, even music, that seeks to depict the Divine; none, of course, in quite the same way. And I suspect that if someone were to ask us today what God looks like to us, we would say one thing, only to answer the question differently in a week, or a month, or a year. The truth of the matter is, God is so big that it’s nearly impossible to pin him down in a few words, or some brushstrokes on canvas, or notes on a score.
It should come as no surprise, then, that centuries before his birth, expectations of a coming Messiah were quite diverse, and even contradictory. In that world of exile and oppression, many of the Israelites expected a worldly political revolutionary who would restore the glory days of the Davidic Kingdom with its peace and prosperity. Other people looked for a messiah who represented the Greek ideal focusing entirely on the afterlife. And still others felt it was blasphemous to even speak about what the messiah might be. It was into that atmosphere that the prophet Isaiah lifted up a vision of the miracle that was to come, “He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”
So what is your picture of God? Many years ago, there was a great emperor who decided he must have the finest of clothes. So he called upon two weavers in his kingdom to fashion a new suit for him, and promised them a fine payment. In return, the weavers promised to deliver a suit made of the most elegant fabric; so fantastic was the material, in fact, that it would be invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position. The emperor is ecstatic when the weavers return a few days later with his “new clothes.” So excited he is, that he decides not to admit that he can't see them, for fear of appearing unfit for his position. As he “dresses” in his new clothes, his ministers (also unable to see them), extol their great beauty. Once dressed, the emperor processes before his subjects, who play along like the ministers, remarking about the wonderful craftsmanship of the emperor’s new clothes.
Does the emperor have on new clothes? Nearly everybody seems to think so. And the few who do not, cast down their eyes and pretend to agree. Eventually, over time, the crowd sets a new standard, and even the dissenters must agree that the perception of the group is the only one that really matters. Those who clearly see that the emperor had no clothes on must agree that he has new clothes. They must either keep their mouths shut, or look odd in a culture that has settled the matter in their own minds. Everyone was playing along.
So it is, I think, with our perception of God; especially here around Christmas-time. We have this most odd mixture of elves and apostles, reindeer and shepherds, snowmen and magi, Jesus and Santa. And generally speaking, it’s the non-Christian elements that seem to prevail in the mix. A Christmas miracle is directly tied to the number of gifts under the tree. Christians “celebrate” the birth of Christ, but it ends up looking more like the celebration of this Santa Claus Jesus, a golden-calf messiah who promises to fulfill all our earthly wants and wishes, an idol who supports our quest for material wealth outside a relationship with God.
Think about the way we describe Santa, “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good!” Such descriptions of Santa reflect the way we have reduced God to some mythical watchdog who judges our niceness or naughtiness and rewards or punishes us accordingly. But here’s the thing; this is not the God we see in Jesus. Jesus did not come shimmying down a chimney bearing gifts for good boys and girls. In fact, Jesus was not the messiah most people were expecting or hoping for at all!
Everything about Jesus’ life stood in stark contrast to worldly values. Jesus arrived on the scene not in great strength, but vulnerable and weak. He was not born with a “silver spoon” in his mouth, but in a cave for animals. Jesus was a Palestinian Jew who grew up in a community of marginalized and oppressed people. As a matter of fact, Jesus spent the earliest years of his life as a refuge in Africa, running from political genocide. And growing up he lived in a little village as a member of a working class family. When Jesus got older, he resisted the world’s obsessions with wealth and power and instead identified with the weak, the powerless, the widows, the orphans, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the lepers. He didn’t condemn sinners but defended, forgave, healed and saved them. So what does God look like? God looks like Jesus! He is Immanuel, which means, “God with us.” And that, of course, is what Christmas is all about!