What does God look like? How would you recognize God if or when God showed up?
Artists have attempted to depict God’s image in countless ways through the millennia while others have deemed it blasphemous to do so. Centuries before Jesus' birth the ancient prophets spoke of the coming of a messiah deliverer, who “will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually . . . and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Isa. 9:6-7). But this messiah king would also know suffering and rejection (Isa. 54). His mission would clearly prioritize the poor and the marginalized (Isa. 61:1-8).
What is your mental picture of God when you pray? A critical, condemning judge or merciful loving parent? A God who favors some people and places over others or a God who loves all creation and all people who make up this incredible planet? Do you picture a Savior who is only concerned with saving people for life after death, or one who is actively engaged in restoring and renewing devastated places? Do you believe that God always rewards obedience with material wealth and physical health, or God who is present with us in poverty, pain, and suffering?
Jesus was not what most folks expected. When you think about God, adjectives like powerful, majestic, and almighty tend to come to mind. But Jesus did not come into the world with any air of worldly wealth or majestic power. Everything about Jesus’ life stands in stark contrast to worldly priorities and values. He does not arrive on the scene in strength but weakness. As a man he lived in tension with the organized religious system. He resisted the world’s obsessions with wealth, pleasure, power, and recognition. He identifies with the weak and powerless, the widow and orphan. He does not condemn but defends the sinner. What does God look like? Like Jesus! Jesus is the embodiment of God’s values and priorities. He is Immanuel—“God with us.” In Jesus we see not only the face of God, but in the fullness of his humanity who you and I are created to be.
Too often, we view God like Santa Claus—a genie in a bottle here to fulfill three wishes. All you have to do is name it and claim it, believe it and receive it! We have created a Santa Claus Jesus in our own image, a golden calf messiah who promises to fulfill all our earthly wants and wishes. An idol of consumption who supports the human quest for meaning and purpose in material things, outside of 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 / so be good for goodness sake!” Our popular notions of Santa Claus reflect the way we reduce God to a mythical watchdog who judges our niceness or naughtiness and metes out rewards and punishments accordingly. This is not the God we see in Jesus.
Jesus is not the sugar daddy that many hope for. He does not come shimmying down the chimney bearing gifts for good boys and girls. God’s gifts cannot fit in a stocking, but rather must be received in our hearts.
The picture that you have of God has everything to do with the shaping of your faith and values. If your picture of God is distorted, your life perspective will be skewed, so it’s no wonder our experience and expectations of the Christmas season become skewed by this faulty image of Jesus as magical gift-giver. God doesn’t do magic. Magic is an illusion, not real, for entertainment, not transformation. God came to earth to work miracles in our broken world.
The ideal we imagine of the “magical” Christmas experience is unattainable. We stress ourselves out and even go into debt to create that warm and fuzzy feeling for our families and ourselves. But that feeling doesn’t last. The real meaning of Christmas gets lost in the chaotic clutter of shopping, spending, escalating debt, exhausting preparations and the stacks of gifts that most of us don’t need or may never use. In the chaos of the “Holiday Season” we miss the true gift, Immanuel--God with us!
This “magical” Christmas ideal is also startlingly unbiblical. Many of the current Christmas traditions that we hold to as ‘Christian’ are really a mix of a little biblical truth blended with Victorian practices of the 19th century along with a double shot of Santa Claus theology (and please don’t hold the whipped cream). How many confuse the account of ‘The Night Before Christmas’ with the real events surrounding the first Christmas day? Even our Christmas hymns have presented a sanitized version of a rather traumatic event: “The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes, but the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Who can relate to the experience of having a newborn that never cried? The real Christmas was a snapshot of poverty and anxiety, not feel-good warm fuzzies.
Miracles come with a sacrificial cost. Can you imagine the ostracism and rejection that Mary experienced as an unwed teenager? It was most definitely not the miracle that she was hoping for. Is this what it means to receive God’s favor? At Christmas we celebrate the birth of the Messiah-deliverer who was born to show us how to live sacrificially, and to die sacrificially for us. Sacrifice is not a pleasant word to most of us, and it will definitely make us uncomfortable. When all is said and done, most folks would rather have a happy, holly-jolly holiday experience rather than be a living womb for an honest-to-God Christmas miracle.
For our lives to be meaningful, we need to give them away! Meaning is not found in personal comfort and material luxuries. So, it should be no surprise that a meaningful Christmas is not found in mindless spending, eating, and stress. Rather, when we give sacrificially to those in need, we are giving to Jesus himself. It is his birthday, after all!
Christmas is about a miracle, and miracles don’t just happen; they are born through the pains of labor. It can be very difficult to make changes in your life that will honor Jesus. Immanuel has come to move us out of our comfort zones. The birth pains of miracles are not comfortable. The labor that precedes birth is intense, but if we are willing to go through that labor, God will conceive miracles in us, at Christmas and throughout the year.
excerpted from: Christmas is Not Your Birthday: Experience the Joy of Living and Giving Like Jesus by Mike Slaughter Copyright 2011 by Abingdon Press. Used with permission.