Last Christmas I heard a sermon titled simply “The Purpose of Christmas” given by NYC Pastor Timothy Keller. For those searching for a more meaningful holiday experience and celebration of Christmas, I highly recommend this sermon. Over the next week, I will post a series of reflections on this theme based on the Keller sermon. At a minimum this will help me enjoy a deeper Christmas experience; I hope it helps others do the same.
The text for this sermon, from the first epistle of John, is not likely one that you have heard preached on during Christmas before:
1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We write this to make our joy complete.
After expounding on the essential nature of doctrine (that everyone has a faith – or doctrinal – commitment), for to even criticize one for being dogmatic about their beliefs about God and try to persuade other people is to oneself attempt to persuade another to believe one’s own dogmatic position, he then argues for the importance of the Christmas story being an actual historical event. The Apostle John makes a historical, eye-witness claim in this passage: we have heard, we have seen, we have touched the Word of life. He is claiming that these are not legends, not feel-good spiritual parables, not myths they made up. To argue that these things never actually happened, but that these are just wonderful parables that teach us moral truth is an absurd position. Either these are historical accounts or they are lies because they undeniably claim to be historical. If they are lies, they are not only nonsense, but they are dangerous nonsense that ought to be opposed. There is no logical middle position, for what they claim is so extraordinary and so history and life transforming, that if it is not actually true it should be rejected.
What is claimed to have happened on Christmas is that the ‘Word of life’ became ‘flesh.’ The Word of life is referring to eternal, divine, ultimate reality. The miracle and the mystery of Christmas is that in the birth of Christ, the ideal actually became material, the timeless became temporal, the spiritual corporeal, the infinite finite.
This doctrine of the incarnation distinguishes Christianity fundamentally from other religions. In Eastern religions, like Hinduism, which are pantheistic (God is in everything) such acts of incarnation are normal. In Hindu mythology, for example, divinity often manifests itself in physical form. On the other hand in other theistic religions like Judaism and Islam, God is so transcendent that incarnation is impossible, even offensive: the divine would never condescend to take on flesh. In contrast to these religions, Christianity teaches that incarnation is possible, but in contrast to Eastern religions Christianity teaches that incarnation is not normal: the act of God becoming man in the conception and birth of Jesus is so utterly unique and extraordinary that it required the sundering of the universe to happen and changed history irrevocably.
The rest of the sermon applies this doctrine of a historical incarnation to our own experience of Christmas. The incarnation should affect us in at least four ways, making us “deeply mystical, happily material, fiercely relational, and free to be emotional.” I will write two more posts on the purpose of Christmas this week each reflecting on two of these existential effects of the reality of the incarnation. In the meantime, I highly recommend this sermon to you. It can be purchased in mp3 format for only $2.50 at sermons.redeemer.com/store.