It’s September, and it’s not unusual to hear people complain about Christmas—and how early is has come, with all the trees, decorations, gift ideas, and special foods appearing in our shops. Four months before the big event, and we are presented with expectations to buy and participate—of which we are expected to comply.
Of course, the early appearance of Christmas each year, smacks of crass commercialism. But that doesn’t mean that people don’t enjoy the more commercial side of Christmas. In fact the majority of people probably do. They put up trees, eat special foods, see family and friends, and give presents (and sometimes well before the event too). And yet, the promotion of Christmas four months before its expected celebration, is something that can really grate. And particular so, for those who wish to celebrate it in a different, more traditional manner—as it was originally intended.
Christmas in the twenty-first century, then, with all the advertising, and all the glitz and glamour, is a very confusing sort of festival. In many ways we seem to have lost the plot. But perhaps that’s not surprising because, when you think about it, that’s exactly how it was at the first Christmas too.
B. LEVELS OF NEW TESTAMENT BELIEF
1. Level 1: Those with No Idea
Indeed, the biggest group of people—the people who lived around Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Judea—would have been totally oblivious to what was going on.
Yes, they would have known that God was going to send a Saviour, and that the Messiah was going to be born into the world. But outside that they would have had no idea of the unfolding events of the nativity at all. Whatever was going on, went on under their very noses. And despite visits of angels, shepherds, wise men, and Herod’s soldiers, there is no indication that the general public knew or understood what was going on around them at all.
2. Level 2: Those Who Are Curious
And yet, there were the wise men. Probably astrologers from the east, who had come to believe that the movement of the stars and other celestial bodies actually meant something. They may have been almost superstitious in their beliefs, but they showed a curiosity for the great events and for the divine. And that was what led them to follow the star to Jerusalem, and then on to Bethlehem.
Now when they found the baby Jesus, they instantly knew they had found someone special. They knelt down and worshipped him, and even gave him special gifts. But then they went home a different way. They wanted protect Jesus from Herod. They went back as quietly and as unobtrusively as they could. And sadly there is no record that they were ever heard from again.
3. Level 3: Those Who Know, but Have a Different Agenda
And then there is King Herod. Now Herod was aware of the prophecies, even though he was a little foggy on the details. He took seriously the idea that Jesus could have been the Messiah. But he took it all far too personally. He saw him as a threat. Herod lived by another agenda. And that is why he ordered that the baby be killed.
More important than the coming of the Messiah, for Herod, was maintaining his own position and power. So any knowledge of who Jesus was, was irrelevant because the only person who mattered was himself.
4. Level 4: Those with Only a Partial Commitment
Then there were the shepherds—a group who had been looking forward to the Messiah’s arrival. So when the angel came to them in their fields, and told them the good news, they were overjoyed. Then once directed by an angel to where they could find him, they went, and saw, and marvelled. After which, they returned back to their fields, praising God.
So they celebrated as they returned to their fields, and surely others would have heard them. But again, once back with their sheep there is no record that they were ever heard of again. And I say that, because it was not until Jesus was about thirty years old that there is any hint of the people finding out just who Jesus was.
5. Level 5: Those with Total Commitment
And then lastly, we have a group of people who showed total dedication to God. And they did whatever they could to herald the coming of the Messiah.
And in that group:
There is Mary, who risked condemnation and death to be God’s obedient servant, willing to carry the baby.
There is Joseph who, despite his strict religious beliefs, believed that serving God was far more important than holding on to the rules that he held dear.
There are the Angels—one or two of whom had visited Mary and Joseph separately prior to the birth of Jesus, and one or two of them had given messages to the shepherds. Then, after Jesus was born, joined as a group in the praise of God the creator.
And there is Simeon and Anna—two people who had dedicated their lives to God through service in the Temple. So that when Jesus was presented there forty days after his birth, they were the two people who knew instantly who Jesus was and what he would grow up to do. And as a consequence, they freely worshipped God.
C. LEVELS OF MODERN BELIEF
What we can see, then, is at least five levels of belief in the original Christmas story. Different people approached the birth of Jesus with different levels of belief. It’s not surprising then that those same five levels of belief are just as evident today.
1. Level 1; Those with No Idea
For just as the general populace in New Testament times were totally oblivious to the events of the first Christmas, so is the same true today.
Indeed, many people today have no real idea about what Christmas is all about. There may be a feeling that it has something to do with religion. But that’s as far, in religious terms, as many are prepared to go. People may enjoy the food, the drink, the presents, meeting family and friends, etc., but they have no more knowledge or understanding of the birth of Jesus, than the people did when it originally occurred.
2. Level 2: Those Who Are Curious
Similarly, like the wise men, there are those who are a bit more curious. They know that something important has happened, they just don’t know what.
Indeed, many people can tell the story of Mary and Joseph. And they may get some of the detail wrong—but we all do that. Many people may also have shown an interest at some time in their life. They may even know some of the Christmas carols off by heart. But their curiosity has since waned and, in many ways, the birth of Jesus doesn’t affect them at all.
3. Level 3: Those Who Know but Have a Different Agenda
When it comes to people like Herod, you’ll be pleased to know that not everybody is out to permanently eliminate their perceived competitors. Nevertheless, there are people today who, like Herod, have discovered the meaning of Christmas, but are so wrapped up in themselves that they don’t want to be part of it all.
Indeed, they may have discovered that the birth of Jesus is God’s way of rescuing us from ourselves. They may well know what the birth of Jesus is all about. But they are so engrossed in their own agendas that they have become antagonistic to the gospel, and Christmas to them is of no value.
4. Level 4: Those with Only Partial Commitment
Then there are those like the shepherds, who make an initial response, but then their enthusiasm wanes. There are people who go very quiet. And that can be the result of two very different paths.
Some become content with where they are. They get stuck in a mould—they don’t grow spiritually—and as a consequence, they stifle the growth of the rest of the church too.
Alternatively they become obsessed with their personal spiritual growth. But they exclude all others in the process.
In both cases the meaning and purpose of Christmas is largely lost. Furthermore, in both cases, the development of any sort of spiritual life can be fraught with difficulties.
5. Level 5: Those with Total Commitment
Only people like Mary, Joseph, the angels, Simeon, and Anna, reflect any sort of true belief in in the meaning of Christmas. But these are the people who dedicate themselves totally to God. They are people who have not only accepted God’s rescue plan for themselves but are determined that others should have the opportunity to accept it too.
As a consequence, they are people who are prepared to go to enormous lengths to put aside their own personal wants, desires, and preferences in order to carry out God’s will.
1. A Helpful Model
So what’s the difference between the initial reaction to Christmas, and the way it is celebrated today. Not much. The basic responses to the Christmas message are much the same today as they’ve always been.
Now I have only talked about the five different levels in general terms. And to make it clear those levels are:
1. Those with no idea;
2. Those who are curious;
3. Those who know, but have a different agenda;
4. Those who have a partial commitment; and
5. Those with total commitment.
But of course, some people are able to work their way from level one to level five. Some never get past the first wrung, and others get stuck somewhere on the way. Some skip levels in developing their faith, and some retain ideas and concepts for the other levels they’ve visited. Very few, however, manage to work their way through to level five.
And that is why we have this commercial mess at Christmas time. A mess that begins about four months in advance each year.
Having said that, however, the five levels of faith that we find in the Christmas story, can be a very helpful tool, particularly as we consider our own personal journey.
2. Christmas Is Like an Onion
Think of Christmas as an onion. An onion has layers. Peel off one layer and there’s another one underneath.
Now let’s apply that:
The brown flaky skin then represents the people who have no real interest at all. And as you peel the onion there are the other layers, representing smaller and smaller groups of people, until you get to the core—the small dedicated group in the middle.
Now that’s one reason for thinking of Christmas as an onion. But there is another.
And that is, the deeper that you get in the faith, the more you will want to cry about those who are on the upper levels who have not yet discovered what Christmas is supposed to be all about.
Because if Christmas is about God’s salvation plan—which we have to choose whether to be a part of it or not—then all those in the upper three layers are lost. That is, those with no idea what it’s about, those who are curious, and those who know but have different agendas. As a consequence none of them will be saved come Judgement Day.
Furthermore, those with only a partial commitment may be saved themselves, but they have placed limits of their face, so they cannot enjoy all the things that God wants to give. They also don’t help those who will be otherwise condemned on the outer layers either. And that should make all of us cry.
Christmas in the twenty-first century is a reflection of the beliefs and practices of the majority. The advertising, etc., may begin much earlier than many think proper or respectable. Nevertheless, it is a reflection of the spiritual life and understanding of our society today.
Today we have looked at the birth of Jesus, and we have identified five different responses in the New Testament story. We have also identified those same five attitudes as being alive and well in our culture today.
But to which group do we belong? To one of disinterest or to one of total commitment? What kind of Christmas are we intending to celebrate this year?
Posted: 19th September 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis