There are some things that just go without saying. Or at least, we think they do.
The world is round. Gravity makes things fall (unless you’re on a moonwalk). Never shake a soft drink container.
But we haven’t always known these things. At some point in our lives, someone told us these truths for the first time—and sometimes we didn’t believe it the first time we heard it. Like the investors of Colombus’ day, doubting the likelihood of a round earth, we question something that sounds…shocking.
However, once we have decided it is true, these facts eventually lose their wonder. It no longer shocks our socks off to think of our planet turning on its axis as it spins around a giant burning star. We take it for granted.
Just like that, we lose our amazement to things that truly are amazing. Unfortunately, this is what we do every December.
This time of year the symbols and sentiment of the Incarnation story are everywhere. We sing songs about Baby Jesus and hear Luke 2 read several times and see mangers and angels and shepherds in nativities in front yards everywhere.
This is good.
But soon we start to tune it out. We’ve heard this before, and we already know it. Check. Got it.
The truth we celebrate at Christmas is too magnificent to lose our amazement at it. Seriously! The almighty God became a human, entering the limitations of time and space to walk with us and talk with us—and save us. He came as a baby, even more limited by the weaknesses of infancy, born in a dirty stable to poor parents in a conquered country.
Has any other religion ever taught anything so crazy?
When we act like the miracle of Christmas is normal, we forget that it really isn’t. It is inconceivable. Unimaginable. Everything about this story—this true story—defies our human logic and could never have been something we could have thought up ourselves. This is epic.
In Hidden Christmas, Tim Keller sets out to show us some of the things we forget (or have always missed) about the story of Christmas. Keller, pastor and theologian and author of books such as The Reason for God and The Prodigal God, pries into several areas of the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life, unfolding aspects of the Christmas story that have always been there but we whiz right by them.
Starting with the genealogies, Keller shares insights from studying the mothers and fathers listed in Jesus’ family history. He looks deeper at Mary’s faith, and the faith of the shepherds, and explores the real question at stake when the wise men asked Herod, “Where is the King of the Jews?” With each chapter, we are given breathtaking glimpses into the treasure trove of meaning God wrote into the Christmas story, and often we leave with some thought-provoking questions for ourselves. And we thought we knew everything about Christmas.
The Shepherds’ Faith
For example, consider one section of the chapter about the shepherds who heard the angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth. Remember how the angel told the shepherds not to be afraid? We know this. We’ve heard it a thousand times—“Fear not”—even from Linus as he reminds Charlie Brown.
When we think of the shepherds’ fear, we think of it just as being scared of angels because they were so otherworldly. We would be scared of an angel, too, probably. But as Keller points out, this fear was so much deeper than that.
Hidden Christmas takes us back to the Old Testament, reminding us that Jews understood the holiness of God in a way we usually don’t. They remembered, and had passed down the teaching for generations, that God cannot be seen by men, and that even “good” men couldn’t see God and live.
In the Old Testament (the shepherds didn’t know they had turned the page to the New Testament), an angelic messenger could be a sign of coming judgment. But the shepherds were told not to fear. Why? Because there was a Baby in a manger.
“So the shepherds experienced terror before the angels, but it wasn’t simply the fear of the uncanny. As with every other such appearance in the Bible, it was because human beings are radically threatened by the presence of the holy. When God’s glory appears, it always accentuates and intensifies our fundamental fearfulness because we are alienated from God. The angel, however, has an astonishing message: ‘You won’t have to be afraid anymore if you look at what I am showing you.’ The fear that inhabits the deep place of our souls can be dispelled for good.”
The Holy One has come to be with us, so we can be with Him.
Amazing, Amazing, Amazing
It’s an earth-shattering truth, and it always will be, no matter how often we hear it. God came to earth as a Baby, born to poor Jews in occupied territory, subject to time and Roman rulers and sickness and pain. “Born that man no more may die,” Charles Wesley wrote. In the worst and least logical trade-off in all of history, the Son of God voluntarily laid down the rights to glory and honor and took up the pain, dishonor, and punishment of ours.
It’s amazing, really.