In his book Christian Doctrine Shirley Guthrie speaks of the meaning of what we have come to call “Christmas”:
Whatever else they may mean, the birth stories of Jesus,
emphasize the Christian belief that “God with us” is not
just a beautiful idea or an abstract theological truth. It
happened . . . it happened at a particular place, in connection
with a particular mother . . . The stories of the birth of Jesus
tells us that it is into the real world of flesh and blood-men
that God comes . . . In this real flesh and blood-man, Jesus
of Nazareth, God himself was uniquely present in the world.
It should be emphasized, however, that the story of Jesus is not in the past tense. He continues with us. The meaning of the Incarnation is that a living spirit is still at work in our world and especially present in the lives of persons who continue to welcome him with receptive hearts.
Because He came and because He lives, we are promised and blessed with “a spirit of power and love and self-control.” What better Christmas gifts could we want? He continues to call: “Put your trust in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” He continues to cast out the legion of demons in our lives, to bring us back from doubt and despair to faith, to call us to the continuing incarnations of his love.
We often sing about the gifts of God, but sometimes it seems that we Christians want something from God more than we want God himself. We would rather receive salvation from God than God-our-salvation. This may sound like a semantic distinction only, but there is a profound difference.
Several things have contributed to this shift of meaning. First, we regard ourselves as practical-minded modern Americans who can work out our own destiny. As masters of our own affairs, we not only are self-reliant, but we are proud that we can pay our own way. In addition, we are heir to a strong work ethic that causes us to admire industriousness as one the highest virtues. We respect the tangible rewards of our labor, are reluctant to accept charity, and are uncomfortable unless we can return tit for tat.
These attitudes grow out of a very understandable humanism that has seeped into our twentieth century natures. As we became more self-sufficient, we moved further away from our sense of dependence on God and we knew it! But now, after several centuries of increasingly successful humanism, our materialistic successes tend to blind us to our deeper need.
With this sort of background, it is little wonder that when we Christians come to our relationship with God, we are still swayed by this impelling Western heritage. We could arrange even our own salvation if we could, notwithstanding all our “understanding” about grace.
But in spite of our very human natures, we are His children and He has already begun reshaping us. We may be stubborn children, but He will not rest until we become the sort of children He meant for us to be all along. The process will almost certainly be difficult because our metal is coarse and needs much refining. Indeed, there will be great pain as His fire burns away the shoddy things that entangle us.
Our old habits and needs and loves only choke us off from the happiness He means for us to have. He intends that we Christians have the heaven of his presence, but we cannot drag these tawdry imitations along. We must ask Him to tear these old habits and loves from us, even though for a time the pain of letting go seems unbearable.
In the meantime, while we are still immature travelers here, He does give us many gifts from His hands, not to possess but to enjoy. We must not mistake them for our ultimate happiness since they are given, like pleasant inns along the way, only to make our journey a little more tolerable. He even gives us an occasional fleeting glimpse, a sparkling hint as it were, of our destination. But let us not mistake these oases for our trip’s end.
God wants us to be happy, but on His terms, not ours. Our ultimate happiness will be having Him, not gifts from His hands. Heaven will not be a gift from Him; it will be heaven because He will be ours and we will be His. When we seek Him with all our hearts we will fly to His breast, not stopping to see what presents His hands may hold. Already our relationship as sons of God is established. Someday, in unspeakable joy, it will be perfected.
Until then, let there be no doubt in our music and in our hearts: the gift of God is now, and forever will be, God Himself. And that is indeed Good News!