How to Tell the Real Christmas Story
Every Christian loves the story of Christmas. We love to hear about the angels and the shepherds. We love the think about noble Joseph and humble Mary. We love the wise men and the star of Bethlehem. We love the whole nativity scene. Most of us know the story so well we smile just to hear the name Quirinius (whether its pronounced correctly or not).
It’s a great story because it’s a familiar story. It’s a true story. And Christmas is wonderful because it’s not the beginning of the story. In fact, the more you know about the stories leading up to The Story, the richer and deeper and sweeter Christmas will be.
Once upon a time there lived a man and a woman. They were actually the only people alive at all. There names were Adam and Eve. God made them. And like everything else God made, he made them good. But they didn’t stay that way very long. On one very bad day, they ate from the only tree they weren’t supposed to eat from. It was a terrible day, the second worst thing that’s ever happened in the world.
A snake had tricked them and told them a lie about the fruit. He said they would be like God if they ate it. But actually the opposite was true. When they ate the fruit, the were separated from God. It would never be as easy to be close to God as it had been before that day.
God was not happy with Adam and Eve. He wasn’t happy with the snake either. Because they disobeyed, God put a curse on the man and the woman and the snake and everything else. He kicked Adam and Eve out of the garden paradise he had made for them. It wasn’t possible for people so bad to live with a God who is so good. That’s why they had to leave.
But before they left, God made a promise. He promised that the evil serpent, the Devil, would always be at war with Eve and her children. Now that doesn’t sound like a very nice promise, that bad guys and good guys would fight all the time. Who wants to be in a war that never ends? But that’s where the good part of the promise comes in. God promised that one of Eve’s children would, some day, eventually, sooner or later, crush the head of that nasty serpent. Nobody knew when or how, she would have a child to put things right.
But things got a lot wronger before they got righter. Adam and Eve had several kids, including two brothers named Cain and Abel. Abel was a good man, but Cain was not. And when God accepted Abel’s gift instead of Cain’s, Cain got very angry. So angry, so hurt, and so jealous that he killed his brother. The first murder in history, but sadly not the last.
Things were not the way they were supposed to be. Everything fell apart after sin entered the world. Things got so bad in the world, and so fast, that God decided to start over. The people on the earth were terribly wicked in their hearts, all the time, every day. They didn’t deserve to enjoy God’s world anymore. So God took it from them. Or, more exactly, he took them from it. He sent a flood that wiped away everyone and everything, because it had all been stained with sin.
But God saved one family on the earth–one family that trusted him and believed his word. Noah, his wife, and their sons and daughters-in-law were spared. They lived for a lot of days with a lot of animals in a big boat called an ark, while it rained and rained. God was going to start over with his creation. He was angry with the world that hated him, but he was still at work to save the world that he loved. That’s why he rescued Noah and his family. God wanted to give his people another shot. Noah was going to be a new kind of Adam.
The problem was Noah was too much like the first Adam. It didn’t take long after they got of out the boat for Noah to do some pretty bad stuff himself. He trusted God enough to build an ark when everyone laughed at him, but it turns out he could be just as foul as the rest of them. Even one of Noah’s sons got cursed, just like everything got cursed back in the Garden. History was repeating itself. Whether it was Adam or Noah, the first world in the beginning or the second world after the flood, people just couldn’t get things right.
One time, a whole bunch of people got together to build a giant tower. They thought they could build all the way up to heaven. But it must not have been all that big because God had to come down just to see it. And when God saw it, he was not pleased. Everyone was working together, which was okay, but they weren’t working for God, and that was not okay. They were trying to show how smart and impressive they could be all on their own. They thought they didn’t need God. So God mixed up all their languages and spread them out all over the place.
As you can see, things were still not going well in the world God had made. God would have to find another way to save his people.
Not too long after this whole tower business God called a man named Abraham to leave his home and go to a new country. (Ok, actually his name was Abram at this point, but everyone remembers him as Abraham). When God called Abraham he made a lot of big promises. He promised to bless Abraham and to bless everyone who blessed Abraham. He promised to curse everyone who cursed Abraham. He promised Abraham a land and a child. God promised that Abraham would be the father of a great nation and that all nations would be blessed through him. Pretty much, all the blessing that God wanted to give Adam and Eve he promised to Abraham. And the best part was this time God was going to do everything himself to make sure Abraham got his blessing.
You might think that God wanted to bless Abraham because he was such a swell guy. But if you thought that you’d be wrong. Abraham didn’t know God at all when God called him. And even after God called him, Abraham could still be a liar and a bit of a scaredy-cat. Abraham had only two things going for him: God promised to bless him and Abraham believed God’s promise. That’s all Abraham had going for him. Good thing that’s all he needed.
At times it looked as if God wasn’t going to keep his promises to Abraham. For starters, it was like a hundred years before Abraham and his wife Sarah (who used to be Sarai) had a baby named Isaac (who, thankfully, was always called Isaac). And then when the baby became a boy God told Abraham to kill him. That must have seemed like a not-so-funny way to make a great nation out of Abraham, but Abraham listened to God anyways. And at the last second, God gave Abraham a ram to sacrifice instead of his beloved son. It was God’s way of saying, “I’ll take care of the rescuing. Just trust me.”
Well eventually Isaac grew up, got married, and had some kids of his own. Twins to be exact–Esau and Jacob. God picked Jacob to get the blessing even though he was the younger brother and wasn’t supposed to get the blessing. But God is God so he gets to pick. Jacob had twelve sons and this time it was the fourth son, Judah, who wound up with the blessing. Jacob told Judah that a lion of a leader would come from his family.
They may sound like pretty decent folks, but Abraham’s family was even more messed up than Abraham. Isaac was sort of weakling. Jacob was a selfish trickster. And Judah did such dumb stuff we don’t even want to talk about it.
But God kept his promises all the same. He blessed the whole lot of them despite themselves. Things were on track for the Snake-Crusher to come from the gnarled Abraham-Isaac-Jacob family tree.
Several hundred years later, however, it looked like things had gotten way off track. See, when God told Abraham to leave his home, he promised to give him a new land in Canaan. It was going to be a great land. It was supposed to remind God’s people of the Garden they once had. But Abraham and his sons never really possessed the land they were promised. And now four hundred years later Abraham’s family were slaves in Egypt.
How they got to Egypt is a long story, but here’s the short version: they went to Egypt because their was a famine in Canaan, and when they got to Egypt Jacob’s sons found their long lost brother Joseph, who helped get them food and a place to live even though he was there because his ten old brothers had been jealous and sold him into slavery. (I told you it was a long story.)
Well, delivering them from famine was one thing. That’s when Israel’s family was still pretty small (Israel, by the way, was Jacob’s new name; I guess everyone needed two names back then). But how would God save a couple million people from slavery? It’s not like he could just turn the Nile River to blood and send frogs and gnats and flies and disease and boils and hail and locusts and darkness and death until Egypt’s Pharaoh let them go. Actually, that’s exactly what God did. God raised up Moses to deliver his people, but in reality God did all the work. He sent the plagues. He led the people with a fire and a cloud. He made the sea turn to dry land so the Israelites could walk through, and he turned the dry land back to sea when the Egyptians tried to cross. It seemed that no matter what they did or what people did to them God always found a way to save his people.
Which was a very good thing. Because it seemed that no matter how many times God saved his people they were never quite safe from themselves. See, after God delivered his people from Egypt he gave them a lot of commandments. This wasn’t a bad thing. They were good commandments. And if they obeyed the commandments, God’s people would be blessed. There would be food and children and long life and protection and a new home. It would be just like they were in paradise again. That’s where God was leading them all along. But if they didn’t obey, there would be curses, sort of like the ones that fell on Adam and Eve and the serpent.
As you might have guessed, the people didn’t do so well obeying God’s commands. And once Moses and his helper Joshua died, they disobeyed even more. When they did work hard at some rules-like the rules about sacrifices-they didn’t really obey those rules from the heart. They just checked them off their list and forgot about the more important rules.
Not that they deserved it, but God finally gave them their promised land. God did the work to get them in, but God’s people didn’t do the work to drive everyone else out. This meant a lot of trouble for the Israelites. They constantly had enemies to fight. And worse, they constantly had to fight the temptation to be just like their enemies.
Sometimes things would go well for Israel, when they had a good leader and when they obeyed. But most often things went poorly for Israel. God gave them rules. But they didn’t follow them. God made his dwelling among them. But they didn’t keep themselves clean. God sent judges to lead them. But Israel didn’t listen. God provided priests to do God’s holy work. But the priests didn’t know how to be holy either.
Of course, God still had his promises to keep. But most days it was hard to imagine how any man could save this stubborn people. It was even harder to imagine how such a man could come from among this people.
God’s people always had a hard time not copying everyone else around them. This was especially true when it came to having a king. Although God warned them how bad kings could be, they just had to have one. So eventually, God gave them a king.
The first king was Saul. Other than being tall, he was not much to write home about. Pretty disappointing all around. The second king, young David from Bethlehem, was definitely much better. In fact, in the stories that lead up to The Story, there’s no one more important than King David. When David wasn’t busy sinning, which he did in some really big ways, he was a good, wise, merciful king. A lot of good things happened to God’s people when David was in charge. They were victorious and prosperous and blessed.
But the best thing that happened was what God promised would happen. God told David that he would always have a son to sit on the throne. He promised David an everlasting kingdom. This was good news for David, and even better news for God’s people. It meant that God had not forgotten the guarantee he made in the Garden. A deliverer was on his way. And now everyone who had ears to hear knew he would be a son of David.
But the next son of David was not the one they were looking for. Solomon started off on the right foot, but he ended up tripping quite spectacularly. After Solomon, the kingdom split in two, with Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Neither kingdom was very good. God punished Israel first, then Judah. In the course of four hundred years God’s people went from top dog to dog food. They had been kicked out of their own land just liked Adam and Eve had been kicked out of their own paradise. And worst of all, David’s house and David’s throne were no more. What had happened to God’s promises?
Believe it or not, the promises were definitely still there. In fact, God kept on making more promises all the time. God promised that the Snake-Crusher, Abraham’s child, Judah’s lion, David’s Son would come from Bethlehem. God promised he would be born of a virgin. God promised a messenger to prepare the way. God promised that the Deliverer would save Israel and be a light to the nations. God promised lots of amazing things.
But Israel was too busy disobeying God’s commands and ignoring God’s warnings to notice. God sent miraculous prophets like Elijah and Elisha and rebuking prophets like Amos and Malachi and sad prophets like Jeremiah and good news prophets like Isaiah. It didn’t matter which ones God sent or how many, the people never listened. Not for very long anyway.
And so one day it happened that God stopped sending the prophets. No more warnings. No more direction. No more word from the Lord. Only silence. For four hundred years. God had sent prophets, priests, and kings; he tried starting out and starting over with Adam and Noah; he chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; he gave Moses the law; he sent Israel judges; he raised up deliverers; he conquered enemies; he provided sacrifices; he lived among them in a tent and in a temple; God gave his people every opportunity and ten thousand chances, but still sin and the Serpent seemed to be winning.
Until…all of a sudden, they lost.
Which brings us at last to Christmas. This is where we meet the new Adam, the child of Abraham, and the Son of David. It’s at Christmas where we see the real Deliverer, the real Judge, the real Conqueror. No one understood it completely at the time, but when Mary pushed out that baby, God pushed into the world the long-expected Prophet, Priest, and King. God gave his people a new law, a new temple, and a new sacrifice. Best of all, he gave his people a new beginning.
Of course, some things were different than people had expected. The stable with the animals and the scandal with Mary were surprises. But the biggest surprise what that the Chosen One of God was chosen by God to die. It just didn’t seem right that the one destined to crush the serpent would be crushed himself. So when Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God, died, it seemed a shocking evil beyond belief. And it was. The worst thing that’s ever happened in the world.
But also the best. Just as we would expect from God. And just as God planned it.
We break promises, so God keeps his. We run from God, so he comes to us. We suffer for sin, so the Savior suffers for us. The history of our Story is the story of God doing what we can’t in order to make up for us doing what we shouldn’t. And so deliverers are born to die. Things fall apart so they can come together. God kicks his own people out of paradise and then does whatever it takes to bring them back again.
The story of Christmas is a wonderful story. It’s a familiar story. And it’s a true story. But it’s not the beginning of the story. As we’ve seen, it’s actually the beginning of the end of the story that we are still in the middle of.
We needed a Savior. So God promised a Savior. And God sent a Savior. “You shall call his name Jesus,” the angel told Joseph, “for he will save his people from their sins.” That’s why he came. That’s why he reigns. That’s why we follow him. Because that little baby in the straw is the One God said would come, the One who is coming again, and the One who loves us even more than we love Christmas.