I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!
Scripture: Matthew 1:1, 12-17
As of this writing, many people around the world—including at least one of my three kids—are excited about the latest chapter in the Star Wars saga, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Each of the previous seven Star Wars movies—along with the new one, I’m sure—begin with the following words on the screen: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
In other words, no matter how much tinkering with computer-generated imagery that George Lucas and others have done to keep the movies looking as visually “realistic” as possible, these ten words may as well read, “Once upon a time…” They remind us from the beginning that, despite the fact that thousands of British people in a recent census claimed “Jedi” as their religion, the world of Star Wars is nothing more than a glorified fairy tale.
Notice, by contrast, how different the Gospel of Matthew is. By the time we reach the final third of the genealogy, we know little, if anything, about these names. Matthew records them, not because they represent great heroes of faith, but for the sake of historical accuracy. As Tim Keller writes, “That means he is grounding what Jesus Christ is and does in history. Jesus is not a metaphor. He is real. This all happened.”
Fables, fairy tales, and even science-fiction fantasies can impart life lessons to us. They can teach us how to live our lives better and how to be better people. But notice this isn’t what Matthew and the other gospel writers are up to. They are not giving us good advice; they are bringing us good news. Keller puts it like this:
Advice is counsel about what you must do. News is a report about what has already been done. Advice urges you to make something happen. News urges you to recognize something that has already happened and to respond to it. Advice says it is all up to you to act. News says someone else has acted. Let’s say there is an invading army coming toward a town. What that town needs is military advisers; it needs advice. Someone should explain that the earthworks and trenches should go over there, the marksmen go up there, and the tanks must go down there.
However, if a great king has intercepted and defeated the invading army, what does the town need then? It doesn’t need military advisers; it needs messengers, and the Greek word for messengers is angelos, angels. The messengers do not say, “Here is what you have to do.” They say rather, “I bring you glad tidings of great joy.” In other words, “Stop fleeing! Stop building fortifications. Stop trying to save yourselves. The King has saved you.” Something has been done, and it changes everything.
He goes on to say that the biblical Christmas texts are not moralizing stories like Aesop’s Fables, which tell us how to live. Rather, they are descriptions of actual events in history. “The birth of the Son of God into the world is a gospel, good news, an announcement. You don’t save yourself. God has come to save you.”
I would argue that other religions and many churches, when they talk about salvation, understand it and proclaim it as advice. Salvation is something you have to wrestle and struggle for, you have to perform. It comes only if you pray, obey, or transform your consciousness. But the Christian Gospel is different. The founders of the great religions say, in one way or another, “I am here to show you the way to spiritual reality. Do all this.” That’s advice. Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, comes and says, “I am spiritual reality itself. You could never come up to me and, therefore, I had to come down to you.” That’s news.