Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3)
At Christmastime, it’s good for us to remember just how dangerous fantasies are.
I’m not talking about Narnia-type fantasies. I’m talking about how out of our self-centered desires we construct ideas and expectations of the way we want things to be and project them on to people and events. If those people or events don’t meet our expectations we grumble and sulk and lose our tempers.
Fantasy-fueled expectations can easily become tyrants. At Christmas they are often the Scrooges and Grinches of our celebrations. Less flatteringly, they are the devils in the garden of God’s gracious love.
Christmas for Christians is a celebration of the Incarnation, that wonderful, impenetrable, mysterious moment when the Word who spoke all things into being (John 1:3) and held them all together by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3) became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). When YHWH “for a little while was made lower than the angels” (Hebrews 2:9). When he who knew no sin entered the world as a bloody infant to become sin for us on a bloody cross that we might become the righteousness of God in him (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Not Like They Expected
If there ever was a holiday to celebrate and worship God in his sovereign control over things not going the way we planned, it’s Christmas. Very little went as Joseph and Mary expected. Joseph hadn’t expected the painful decision to divorce Mary. He hadn’t expected all the difficult unplanned detours that took them to Bethlehem, then to Egypt, then eventually back to Nazareth. Neither of them had expected this holy Child to be born in a stable of desperation.
No one expected the Messiah to come from Galilee (John 7:52), no one expected him to be (formally) uneducated (John 7:15), and no one expected him to literally be the Son of God (John 10:30–33).
Christmas is the celebration of the coming of the unexpected Jesus.
Beware the Hollow Echoes
That’s why we need to be aware of how much we are influenced by the American cultural holiday we call Christmas, because it is almost entirely a fantasy-fueled expectation factory. It’s a hodgepodge collage of images and tales from Dickensian England, Rockwellian America, our own childhoods, and consumer marketing. It’s trimmed with vague notions of joy and peace (hollow echoes of their Luke 2:10–14 origins), and sometimes includes sentimental scenes of a wise, glowing Child in a manger surrounded by serene livestock and European-looking Semites and Persians. And all of this is set to a trans-generational pop superstar soundtrack.
The false myth of this Christmas is that if we can get it to look like the whimsical hazy collage in our minds, we will experience the “Christmas spirit” and be happy.
The problem is, of course, that everyone’s collage is different. The result is that Christmas fantasy expectations are disappointed. And all too often selfishness suffocates love, lashes out in some form of aggressive or passive anger and destroys whatever joy and peace there may have been.
That’s what makes fantasies so dangerous. They are almost always self-centered attempts to seek happiness by forcing reality to conform to our imagination, which we have no power to do. They make unattainable demands and leave us and others disillusioned.
The True Christmas Spirit
So as our celebrations approach, let’s resolve to lay aside the weight and entangling sin (Hebrews 12:1) of selfish Christmas fantasies and look to Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6–8)
This is the true Christmas spirit. Christ did not grasp; he served. And oh, how he served.
Advent season is the celebration of the unexpected Jesus coming at an unexpected time in an unexpected place to pay the unexpected, unfathomable price to give us unexpecting sinners the undeserved gift of complete forgiveness of sin and unimaginable gift of eternal life.
Christmas is not about fulfilling our holiday expectations. It’s about celebrating Jesus’s overwhelming accomplishment for us and following in his humble servant footsteps.
So when things don’t go the way we expect them this season, let us rejoice in the God who rules the unexpected and,
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than [ourselves]. (Philippians 2:3)