The Christmas Story. Just a Good Story?

The Christmas story is a good story. There is something about it that engages even people who would not call themselves Christian. Where Christianity gets a cold shoulder, baby Jesus seems to receive a warm embrace. The Christmas story is a good story for many reasons. It is a story of ordinary people experiencing the extraordinary. It is a story of the underprivileged experiencing an incredible privilege. There is nothing special about Mary or Joseph, either in their societal or religious standing. There is nothing special about the shepherds. The wisemen don’t even belong, they are complete outsiders. Herod, rich, powerful, and privileged, threatens and kills, but the ordinary people battle through dire circumstances and participate in something truly remarkable. Everyone loves a good story where the underdogs come out on top. As for the divine, well the divine very clearly sides with the regular folk. You don’t need to be a Christian enjoy the Christmas story as a good story. But is the Christmas story just a good story and nothing more?

The way in which Luke begins to tell the story tells us something else about it:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. Luke 1:1-4 (NRSV)

Luke sets out to write, not a story, but history. Notice how Luke begins; not with “a long, long time ago in a galaxy far away,” but with, “an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us.” That is, events that really happened in Luke’s time and place and which people who were there would still remember. There are eyewitnesses. The original readers of Luke’s Gospel could check his sources. These eyewitnesses were not people indoctrinated into a school of thought, but people who witnessed things with their own eyes. They were not philosophers, or religious people, but ordinary people who experienced something, and Someone extraordinary. Luke is not making things up, but writing them down. Those who know Greek well can tell that Luke is an educated man from these first verses, for his Greek, we are told, is very good. Luke is not some religious nut who has been duped, but an educated man who has “investigated everything carefully,” so that the reader can “be certain of the truth” (v.4 NLT). The Christmas story is not just a good story, it is also a true story. 

You can imagine a scenario where something is known to be true, but it is not good news. A doctor gives the correct diagnosis, for example. What she says is true, but it may not be good news. Is the Christmas story good news? The way Luke continues drops big hints about that.

The name “Herod” elicited a response in people in much the same way that the name “Trump” does today. However, where Trump elicits a polarized response, Herod’s name always brought fear. Herod’s name shows up early, verse 5 in fact. Fear continues to be a theme of the Christmas story, especially whenever an angel appears:

When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Luke 1:12-13 (NRSV)

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Luke 1:30 (NRSV)

Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Luke 2:9-11 (NRSV)

Every time an angel shows up there is much fear, yet fear not, for behold, there is good news!

People are often reticent about becoming Christians because of fear. They fear that becoming a Christian would have a negative impact on their lives. Their sense of freedom might be impacted. They might have to become “religious.” They don’t like religious people and fear they might have to become like people they don’t like. Therefore if the Christmas story and all the stories of Jesus, including the Easter story, are true, that would be bad news. However, when you dig deeper you discover that the story of Jesus is good news indeed!

Throughout his writing Luke does not come across as saying something like; “sadly, having looked at the evidence, I have to tell you that this religion is true, so you had better commit to it, even though it will be drudgery.” Rather; “having looked at the evidence, all this stuff about Jesus is true, and is great news and brings great opportunity.” It begins with ordinary people and with mean and privileged people but ends in great blessing for the ordinary people. It begins with sinful people, their relationship with God broken and shattered, and ends with people reconciled to God by his love and grace. It begins with death being a certainty and ends with eternal life being an opportunity. It begins with people getting religion all wrong and ends with people living a new kind of life focused on Jesus. It is true, but that does not mean you need to fear becoming someone you don’t like. You become a better version of yourself as you become more like Christ. It is all good news! The Christmas story is not just a good story, and a true story, it is also good news. 

Many people dabble in spirituality; “there is something out there.” Luke has good news based on a true story; there is something out there, in fact, there is Someone out there, and that Someone out there became someone down here. It is a good story, a true story, and is great news!

Asking Daniel; Should We Make Canada Christian Again?

This is the final “Shrunk Sermon” from a series on The Book of Daniel called “Outnumbered. The Book of Daniel and Living As Christians In A Not-So-Christian-Anymore Society.” We have been considering how we might express our Christian faith in a society which has been pushing Christianity to the margins.

If you have been following along, you will wonder why we are ending half way through Daniel. This is a good place to shift gears, for the Book of Daniel itself shifts gears between chapter 6 and chapter 7, from being about the experiences of Daniel and his friends, to prophecies through, and to, Daniel.

Let us remind ourselves what we have learned thus far in Daniel chapters 1-6.

To summarize, in all these things Daniel was living out the words from Jeremiah:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Jeremiah 29:4-7 (NIV)

In other words; live as my people, but quietly among a very different people, making yourselves at home in a strange land. Reading between the lines, we might add; don’t form an army to try and fight your way back. Daniel quietly lived his life in devotion to God. He did not start a war. The early Christians followed a similar pattern as they lived as a minority group with very little influence on the governments of their day. They quietly lived Jesus focused lives and called others to join them in doing the same. They did not seek to start a war or fight for a privileged position.

Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before. 12 Then people who are not believers will respect the way you live, and you will not need to depend on others. 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 (NLT)

Is it time to declare war on our changing culture? Or is it time to settle in, to live as a different kind of people, but harmoniously among others? The Book of Daniel invites us to consider the concept of the separation of church and state. The Book of Daniel invites us to consider the value of religious freedom. The Book of Daniel invites us to reflect on good witness to God’s goodness which begins with a good relationship with God and is borne out through a good relationship with people. The Book of Daniel also invites us to consider that “God’s got it.” We have not spent time in chapters 7-12, but a recurring theme of the prophecies found there is that the future is in God’s hands. Our government may pass laws we don’t agree with. It is not the end of the world. The end of the world is God’s prerogative. God can be trusted with the future of the Church. Therefore our focus is not on rescuing the Church, or the privileged position of Christianity. Ours is not to rescue the Church, but to participate in God’s rescue of people.

In chapter 9 there is something else that is a crucial part of the experience of exile:

So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and fasting. I also wore rough burlap and sprinkled myself with ashes.
4 I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed:
“O Lord, you are a great and awesome God! You always fulfill your covenant and keep your promises of unfailing love to those who love you and obey your commands. 5 But we have sinned and done wrong. We have rebelled against you and scorned your commands and regulations. 6 We have refused to listen to your servants the prophets, who spoke on your authority to our kings and princes and ancestors and to all the people of the land. Daniel 9:3-6 (NLT)

Daniel prayed a prayer of confession. He knew there needed to be a greater connection with God. Daniel’s prayer of confession is focused, of course, on Moses and the Mosaic law. Our prayers of confession will be focused on Jesus:

“Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:5 (NLT)

As we face a changing nation, as Christianity is pushed to the margins, is our focus on making Canada a Christian nation again? Our focus is to make the Church in Canada more Christian than it has ever been.

When We Face Lions. Being a Christian in Canada.

When facing the lions means facing the antagonism of society against Christianity, what do we do? There is no doubt that Christianity has held a privileged place in Canadian society from our nation’s beginning. But now? Not-so-much as church attendance drops to new lows, and traditional Christian values are dropped from the law books. The lions we face are nothing compared to the lions faced by the early Christians or the persecution felt by Christians around the world today. Nevertheless, many have a sense of fear that things will only get worse in our not-so-Christian-anymore society. How do we navigate the new and ever-changing normal? Daniel will help us. Daniel was a person of deep faith in a land where you could be threatened with lions. Let us pick up on some lessons from Daniel, chapter 6, when Daniel faced the lions.

First,

Soon Daniel distinguished himself above all the other presidents and satraps because an excellent spirit was in him, and the king planned to appoint him over the whole kingdom. 4 So the presidents and the satraps tried to find grounds for complaint against Daniel in connection with the kingdom. But they could find no grounds for complaint or any corruption, because he was faithful, and no negligence or corruption could be found in him. Daniel 6:3-4 (NRSV) 

Daniel is known for commendable service to king and country even though Darius is not his king, nor Babylon his country. When we first met Daniel as a teenager in Daniel, chapter 1, he had concern for his Jewish identity, but was also willing to serve the Babylonian king. Now that he is in his early eighties, he has served a few Babylonian kings and is still serving well. Daniel had a commitment to serve people who keep, and threaten people with, lions. Are we willing to serve Canada and Canadians no matter how threatened we might feel?

Second,

The men said, “We shall not find any ground for complaint against this Daniel unless we find it in connection with the law of his God.” Daniel 6:5 (NRSV) 

Daniel’s colleagues are aware of Daniel’s faith. Daniel’s service to king and country is impeccable, so the jealous men are not able to find grounds for Daniel’s destruction. They know, however, that Daniel is a man of deep faith and conviction in his God. They know that he is man of prayer:

All the presidents of the kingdom, the prefects and the satraps, the counselors and the governors are agreed that the king should establish an ordinance and enforce an interdict, that whoever prays to anyone, divine or human, for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be thrown into a den of lions. Daniel 6:7 (NRSV) 

Are people aware that we have deep conviction that God loves humanity in Christ? Do people know that we pray?

Third,

Although Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he continued to go to his house, which had windows in its upper room open toward Jerusalem, and to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him, just as he had done previously. Daniel 6:10 (NRSV) 

Though Daniel has been squeaky clean in his service to king and country, the time has come for deliberate defiance. The time had come to make a choice between devotion to the king, and devotion to the King of kings. Daniel had the courage to keep walking the walk, even when threatened with lions. Would we have had that courage?

We should note here that Daniel’s defiant attitude only arose when his own ability to walk according to his faith was threatened. He was not demanding that all Babylonians pray like he did. Courage for the Canadian Christian in our day does not mean having the courage to enforce Christian values upon all Canadians. But it does mean the courage to follow Jesus as a Canadian, even though it may bring us into disrepute. Do we have the courage to walk the walk and talk the talk? How Canadians live is not our number one priority. How we live is. Enforcing Christian values through Canadian law is not the goal. Helping people know Jesus is.

Fourth,

When the king heard the charge, he was very much distressed. He was determined to save Daniel, and until the sun went down he made every effort to rescue him. Daniel 6:14 (NRSV)

Back in chapter 4, Daniel was distraught over Nebuchadnezzar’s looming troubles. Now the tables are turned and the current king, Darius, is distraught over Daniel’s looming troubles. If we were rounded up and taken to prison for our faith, would our neighbours care? Would anyone beyond our church community even notice? Perhaps the king was disturbed by Daniel’s troubles because Daniel was the kind of person who would be disturbed by the king’s troubles. When people are troubled around us, do we notice? Are we prepared to serve, defend, and care for people who are very different from us? Do we care for people who hold very different values, who live very different lifestyles? Do we get the point of Jesus’ Good Samaritan story? The point is not that we become Samaritans, but that we become good. We should be the priest who actually crosses the road to help someone no matter how “unclean” that might make us feel. Daniel was known for what he is for, and not what he was against. Daniel was known to be for king and country. In choosing the lions he was known for his devotion to God. What are we known for as Christians today?

Fifth,

So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no kind of harm was found on him, because he had trusted in his God. Daniel 6:23b (NRSV)

Consider the people who would have first learned about Daniel’s experience with the lions.
Those experiencing exile along with Daniel would have felt like they were living out a lion’s den experience. Would they survive? Would their faith survive? Would God abandon them there in the pit? Daniel trusted God and he came out of the pit alive. God’s people would be encouraged by that to keep trusting in God’s promises. The exile will end, they will come out of it alive. God’s people would face other lion’s den experiences once the exile was over. In later chapters, Daniel prophecies about difficulties the nation would face under Greek rule and rulers. Keep trusting, God will lift his people out of that lion’s pit also. Just as the story of Daniel in the lions den does not end with Daniel being eaten by lions, there is no storyline which ends with God’s people being destroyed. God has made promises. He can be trusted.

We may feel like the Christian Church in Canada is entering a lion’s den. We may feel like it may someday face extinction. There is no storyline where Christianity is destroyed. That is not how this story we live in will end. God has made promises. We can trust him.

What is true for Christianity is true for the Christian. There may be lion’s den experiences in our lives. We may feel like we have entered the lion’s den when we enter a doctor’s office to receive a diagnosis, or a counsellor’s office to work on a significant but hurtful relationship, or a workplace office to receive a pink slip. Daniel came out of the lion’s den alive. Jesus came out of the tomb alive:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:20-22 (NRSV)

In Christ, there is no future where you do not come out alive. God has made promises. We can trust him.

To summarize, though we think we may face lions here in Canada, let us keep serving all kinds of Canadians, even those who keep lions. Let us keep walking the walk, and talking the talk. Let us keep trusting in God for the future.

(This “Shrunk Sermon” is from a series on The Book of Daniel called “Outnumbered. The Book of Daniel and Living As Christians In A Not-So-Christian Society.” The series begins here)