The True Meaning of Christmas

The type of house in which Jesus could have been born.

“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High…” -Luke 1:32

At the end of the 1965 classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas, we find Charlie exasperated. Nothing has turned out how he had hoped and the tree that takes center stage is a flimsy stand in for Charlie’s imagination. He exclaims, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!”

“Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about,” consoles Linus. He goes on to recite the angelic announcement to the shepherds. A child has been born. Christ the Lord.

At the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey stands distraught on a bridge. He had come to realize how good he had it and how much good he had done. He wanted his life back. He wanted his wife and children back. His guardian angel, Clarence, reminds him that no man is a failure who has friends.

Every year Christmas movies try to remind us of the true meaning of Christmas. Perhaps the message is that it is better to give than it is to receive. Or, it’s not about what you have, but who you’re with that makes the season meaningful. And, on rare occasions, a popular movie will point us back to Jesus as the reason for the season.

The fact that we’re still talking about the birth of Jesus thousands of years later must mean something. What it means to me this year is a little different than it did in the past. This year the meaning of Jesus is wrapped up in the words quoted above: son of the Most High.

It’s not a title for Jesus that I had used very often in my preaching or my prayer life. I was familiar with Christ the Lord, a direct contradiction to the claim of the Roman Caesar as Lord. I knew the title Son of God, the claim that Jesus is uniquely begotten by God, fully divine and fully human. But, until recently, Son of the Most High was not nearly as familiar to me.

“Most High” signifies rank. The Bible teaches that, among the gods, the God of Israel is the highest ranking. Coming from a tradition that emphasized God’s oneness, this was an unusual reality to consider. For most of us, the gods are non-entities. They don’t really exist. The gods are simply fabrications of fallen imaginations. But, this is not what the Bible actually teaches.

There are little hints from the beginning:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image…” — Genesis 1:26

And a little later you find:

And the Lord said, “Come, let us go down…” — Genesis 11:7

But, then in Deuteronomy 32, there is a more functional description of the roles these nameless gods play: the Most High apportioned the nations, when God divided humankind, the Lord fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods (vv. 8–9).

The long and short of it is this: the Most High assigned a god to oversee all the various nations of the earth. For himself, the Most High chose the people of Jacob. While the highest ranking God ruled over the nation of Israel, the surrounding nations were governed by other gods. They had a role to play as defined by the Most High.

In Psalm 82, we find that the Most High has gathered all of the gods. What you’ll notice is that they are failing in their role and God is taking them to task.

I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you;

“How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

Two things stick out to me in this passage. First, the relationship among the gods is more than just functional. It’s familial. The Most High considers the other gods as his own children; beings that he apparently loves, cares for, and cares about. Second, what the Most High is demanding from the gods is justice. Apparently, they have been showing deference to oppressors, to people who are denying what rightfully belongs to the people. The gods are standing by while the wicked take advantage of the poor and the weak, the widows and the orphans. The Most High will not tolerate it.

The Most High’s defense of rights comes up again in the book of the Bible called Lamentations. “When human rights are perverted in the presence of the Most High, when one’s case is subverted — does the Lord not see it?”

The constant prayer is that God would rise up and judge the earth because, while the gods have been given the nations to govern, the psalmist knows that “all the nations belong to you (the Most High).” Justice won’t be done, liberation won’t come, the weak won’t be restored, until the Most High reclaims the nations. For “the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the immigrant, providing them food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:17–18).

Quick summary: the Most High’s expectation is that his children will represent him to the nations by defending the rights of humankind, especially those who find themselves marginalized by the wicked or of lower status due to unforeseen circumstances.

To declare, then, that Jesus is “son of the Most High” calls to mind all that we’ve covered so far. The divine still takes on flesh and is found in human form. Jesus is still Lord in sharp contrast to Caesar. But all of this is taken up into a divine realm that remains hidden from most of us. Jesus has come to represent the Most High, standing up for justice and speaking out on behalf of the marginalized. Unlike so many other divine children of God, this Son of God, who took on human form and bears the name Jesus, would remain faithful to the one he calls Father. He doesn’t intend to do this alone.

As it says in the gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and lived among us.” “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” It was God’s intention to send his only begotten Son into the world, as it says in Romans, “in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.”

It seems that because the Most High’s divine children had turned their back on their vocation to defend justice among the nations, God sent Jesus to call together a family of human children who would stand up and speak out where the gods had not; to remind the gods of their true calling and to reclaim the nations for God Most High. This is why Paul can write in Ephesians that “through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” That is, to the gods; those same gods that the Most High had assigned to the nations.

The Bible tell us that the boundaries and the borders of the nations were all meant to serve a purpose. In Acts 17, it says that God “allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the place where they would live so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him.” Dividing the nations was part of a larger plan to ultimately reclaim the nations. As God “overlooked times of human ignorance” (i.e. injustice and oppression, etc), God also had a plan to appoint someone who would judge according to what is right(see also Psalm 82). “Of this he has given us assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” Now we’re talking about Jesus again. The Son of the Most High was born to recover the nations from the oppressive and unjust sons of God by calling forth children from the human family who would liberate and restore humankind so that the marginalized of every nation would have a voice.

I know that all of this seems very far removed from Christmas. There are no Christmas trees and there is no mention of presents under the tree. There is no Santa Claus or elves. We’re not focused on the family or promoting charitable giving for those in need. That’s part of my concern. I know that if most of us would sacrifice justice and liberation for the sake of trees and presents. But, I’m not sure how many of us who follow Jesus would sacrifice trees and presents for the sake of justice and liberation. If “it just wouldn’t be Christmas without the lights and tinsel” then perhaps we’ve strayed too far from the true meaning of Christmas.

I can imagine others objecting that this focus on standing up and speaking out for the marginalized is too narrow to capture why Jesus was born those thousands of years ago. What about Sunday worship or Sunday school? Where is the fellowship or discipleship? Why not focus on the sweet messages of A Charlie Brown Christmas or A Miracle on 34th St.? Can’t you give us just a few days away from politics and divisive topics?

I would like to be able to offer a reprieve. I know that people have lives to live. But, I don’t know how justify an excuse to avoid discomfort when so many have no escape from suffering. I often say that, in America, racism is the greatest enemy, but consumerism is the biggest obstacle. They are the twin forces that prevent us from achieving the justice and liberation that is so prevalent throughout Scripture. It is our deference to and toleration of these powers that keep our nation stuck in patterns of inequality and racial hostility.

It’s clear to me that the church’s role among the nations is to speak truth to power. If we take Scripture seriously, then we’re speaking not only to the rulers of the earth, but to the gods of heaven who guide them. The meaning of Christmas is not found just in the individual or the personal, not simply in the familial or relational, but in the national and global. Jesus was born as a witness to (or perhaps a protest against) the powers who tolerate or endorse injustice and oppression. That’s why it is the church’s job to make known the “wisdom of God” as it is found in Proverbs 31:

“Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

This is the true meaning of Christmas.

Partner, Parent, Pastor & potential Placemaker pursuing God's peace and stopping occasionally to play golf.

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