THE TIMING OF CHRISTMAS
By Pastor Glenn Pease
Timing may not be everything, but it is plenty. At the dedication service of the Statue of Liberty a boy was to wave a flag indicating that Senator William Evarts had finished his speech. This way the signal for men high in the head of the statue to let go of a giant French flag, which in turn was the signal for the vessels in harbor to let loose with their whistles. Unfortunately, the Senator paused too long, and the boy thinking he was finished set all this commotion in motion. The Senator never did get to finish his speech. Wrong timing ruined it for him.
On the other hand, the graduating class of Harvard in 1949 became the most successful group of graduates in history. It was because of the longest, richest, and most wide spread peace time boom the modern world had ever seen. The 49'ers, because of the timing of their entering into the economy, became rich. One out of 5 became millionaires by 1974. They became the leaders of the upper branches of American enterprise. They became the chairmen and presidents of the largest companies and colleges.
The same thing happened to the class of 1915 at West Point, but for the opposite reason. Because of the timing of the two World Wars, this class was called the class the stars fell on. Many of them became generals, and one by the name of Eisenhower even became president of the United States. Timing really does matter. It is by precise timing that God works in history and in our lives to do wonders without miracles.
A pastor's wife back in the 70's was selected to be on the $128,000 Question. It was a popular TV show in Canada. She and her husband needed money badly, and so they prayed for guidance. She got to the $16,000 level, but they needed double that, so she agreed to come back the next day. Before the show the next day she relaxed by walking through one of Toronto's malls. She picked up a book and leafed through it. She found a page that listed all the plays of Agatha Christie and their opening dates. This was the area her questions were in, and so she read the list through. That night her $32,000 question was to list titles and opening dates of the plays of Agatha Christie. She did not know these answers before that day, but she had picked them up in the mall and was able to win $32,000. She felt that God had given her what she needed, and she refused to continue out of greed to get more. She called it a miracle, but it really wasn't. It was a matter of perfect timing, and that is what we call providential.
The point of all this is, it is time for us to focus again on the birth of our Lord. It is time to focus on that incredible and incomprehensible miracle of the incarnation. The incarnation was a miracle, but so many of the events surrounding it were providential. That is, they were all a matter of precise timing. Paul makes timing an issue in Gal. 4:4 where he states, "But when the time has fully come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law. What we want to see is that though timing may not be everything to Christmas it is plenty, and a focus on the timing of Christmas events can be quite revealing.
The whole of history had to be coordinated to bring about this event with precise timing. Caesar had to give his order for a census at just the right time so as to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem at the time of her delivery. The angel Gabriel had to come to Mary at the right time. It was just 6 months after Elizabeth became pregnant with John the Baptist so she could have the consolation of another woman in her trying time. Her own conception had to be timed to fit the scheduled delivery when she was in Bethlehem.
It was the right time in history for Jesus to come. The whole world was prepared by Alexander the Great to carry the message of Christ to all the world. He made Greek the common language of the world so that the Gospel could be carried to every land in that common language. Timing plays a role in the shepherds being in the field, and the wise men seeking for a star. Timing is the name of the game in the biblical events, and in the celebration of these events. Consider for example,
I. THE TIME OF THE YEAR FOR CHRISTMAS.
Dec. 25th was a time of celebration long before Jesus came. This was the time of the year when the sun began to return to the northern hemisphere, and the days began to get longer. Up to that point the darkness seemed to be winning over the light, and it was pushing the light back further and further. The sun was in retreat, and seemingly headed for defeat, but now there is a reverse process, and the sun if coming back. On the basis of this observation, the ancient Persians and the Romans selected Dec. 25th as a day of celebration for the victory of the sun. From a Christian point of view, not even looking at the birth of Christ, this fact of nature is a very positive one. If you enjoy sunlight and longer days, and all the life that spring will bring, and all the beauty of summer, then it makes sense that Dec. 25th is a valid cause for celebration.
The early Christians were not anti-sun. This was their holiday too, but they saw in it a chance to exalt the greater Son-the Son of God, who was the Creator of the sun of nature. They adopted this holiday as their day of celebration of the coming of the Son into history to bring light to a world in darkness. They made this pagan holiday a Christian holiday. There are many who lament that Christians have been following a pagan custom by celebrating Christmas. This criticism is true if Christians celebrate by abuse of their bodies in drunkenness. But just the fact that celebrate the birth of Christ at the same time as pagans have always celebrated the ascendancy of the sun is no basis for criticism.
This type of argument is folly. One just as well argue that all Christians should give the eating of breakfast because studies show that it was a pagan meal. The Mafia and prostitutes, and drug addicts all eat breakfast somewhere between 6 and 9 in the morning. Therefore, we are exhorted not to conform to the world, and so we ought to give up eating breakfast until closer to noon. This is obviously foolish reasoning, it is also folly to reject the celebration of the coming of Christ on Dec. 25th because the pagans celebrated that day also. It has always been a pagan holiday, and it always will be until Christ comes again. The Christian has the choice of adding Christian content to the day and the season, or of just ignoring it all together.
Making Christmas mandatory would be a legalistic effort rejected by the New Testament. No Christian is obligated to keep Christmas in any special way. It is no where even hinted at, let alone required in the Bible. Paul writes in Col. 2:16, "Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a new moon celebration or a Sabbath day." In Rom. 14:5 he writes again, "One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers everyday alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind."
If Christians want to ignore Dec. 25th, and make no big deal out of it, they are not in least out of God's will. But if they want to fill the day with Christian content, and put Christ in Christmas, that too is the Christian privilege. It is a matter of freedom and not a matter of law. If you want to celebrate the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25th, it is a matter of good timing, for it is nature's time to give light the growing power over darkness. There is no better time of the year to illustrate the coming of light into the world in Christ. In other words, the Word of God and the world of God are saying the same thing in harmony at this time, and so the timing of Christmas is providential.
It is a very weak argument to reject the Christmas celebration on Dec. 25th because of the pagan origin of that day being a holiday. Christians use the common names for the days of the week even though they have a pagan origin. Sunday is the day of the Sun. Monday is the day of the moon. Tuesday is the day of Triva, a child of Woden the supreme god. Wednesday is named after Woden. Thursday is for Thor another of his children. Friday is Woden's wife Frigg. Saturday is from Saturn. None of the days are named after anything Christian. All are pagan gods and goddesses. Our culture is a mixed bag of pagan and Christian influence.
The challenge of the Christian is not to try and weed out all the pagan influence, but to Christianize all that is pagan, and no where do we have a greater opportunity than at Christmas. This is a time of year for us to redeem the time, and pack it full with Christ honoring, and Christ exalting events. Proper timing of acts of love can have an impact in this season that they may never have any other time of the year. This is true around the world where there are radical differences from our culture. In Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries, they call Christmas Borodin, which means big day. This is the biggest holiday of their year. The timing is the best season of the year for people to celebrate. In the rainy season they can't travel much for all is mud, but Christmas comes in winter when the roads are dry and hard, and so there is more getting out and communication than any other time. It is also crucial for the poor because this is when their new crops come in, and without these they would have no money for celebrating.
The timing of Christmas enables this vast populace of the poor to have the most enjoyable celebration of their toilsome year. The timing of nature makes a world of difference all over the world. In our culture we tend to love a white Christmas because the snow covers up the bare and black soil, and it beautifies the dead earth which is devoid of vegetation. The whiteness and brightness of the snow is symbolic of the light of the world who came to save and cleanse, and to make sinners white as snow. The point is, if you are ever going to celebrate the coming of Christ into this world, this is the season in which to do it, for nature and revelation are in harmony saying that the time is just right. The second aspect of timing we want to consider is-
II. THE TIMING OF HISTORY FOR CHRISTMAS.
God did not say, as we used to in playing hide and seek, "Here I come ready or not." He made sure the world was ready. The timing had to be just right or the whole plan of God could not have succeeded as it did, and the celebration of Christ's birth become a world wide event. We are not always ready for Christmas today, for there never seems to be enough time to do all we would like to do. Some just put off their shopping until the last minute. Someone defined a man as a creature who buys football tickets three months in advance, but does his Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve. We have all sorts of poor timing when it comes to Christmas, but the first Christmas was timed just right.
There were centuries of preparation for this event. Jesus did not come into history until He did, because it was not yet the fullness of time, and it was not yet right. God is a God of timing, and all had to be just right for the moment of the incarnation. At the 250th anniversary of Harvard the freshman class marched in a parade with a large banner that read, "The university has been waiting 250 years for us." The world had been waiting many more centuries for a Savior, and when He came He was like a sunrise after a long dark night. Dr. Henry Van Dyke pictured all the prophets focused on this event like the heads of flowers turned toward the dawn to catch the light of the rising sun.
The sun rises with perfect timing, and so also the Son of God came into this dark world at just the right time. This Christmas gift was chosen, wrapped, and ready for delivery before the foundation of the world. It was no last minute thought. It was God's plan before He even created man, for He knew he would need a Savior, but he had to wait till the timing was right. Dr. Luke starts his second chapter with this historical fact. "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed." All the details of the Christmas story revolve around the timing of this secular decree from the Roman Emperor. Had he not made that decree just when he did, Mary and Joseph would not have been in Bethlehem when Christ was born, and none of the prophecy concerning the Messiah's birth would have been fulfilled. The timing of secular history plays a major role in the sacred history of God's plan of salvation. Do not ever assume that the secular world is all under the control of Satan. God is ever at work in the secular whelm achieving His purpose.
It is fascinating to study the parallels of the life of Christ and that of this Caesar whose decree got his life started when God wanted it started in Bethlehem. Augustus was born Sept. 23, 63 B.C. just before sunrise, and his birthday became a popular holiday, just like the birthday of Jesus.
1. His father died when he was a boy, just as Joseph did when Jesus was a boy.
2. At 12 he was mature and wise enough to have delivered a funeral oration for his grandmother Julia, the sister of Julius Caesar. Jesus was 12 when He was found in the temple interacting with the scholars of the day.
3. Both had a great genealogy going back to the noble of the past.
4. Both built empires that were world wide.
5. Both had compassion on the poor. One of the reasons Augustus needed the taxes that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem was because of his massive feeding program for the poor.
6. Like Jesus, he also had compassion for the sick. He took in many of the children of mentally ill patients, and he raised them with his own and gave them the same education.
7. He pardoned many who sinned against him, and let his political enemies hold high office again.
8. He fought for decency on the stage.
9. He was so loved by the masses that some Italian cities voted to make their official year begin with the anniversary of his first visit to them. He received the title "Father of his country," and was to Rome what Washington was to us.
10. Many celebrated his birthday over 2 days with festivities and gifts.
11. He died on Aug. 19th, 14 A. D. when Jesus was about 10 years old. It is of interest that he died at 3 P. M., which was the same time of day that Jesus died.
I am not trying to make anything of these parallels, as if there is some deep revelation here. I am just pointing out that the providence of God is far greater than what we see in sacred history alone. The Christmas story brings the secular world together with the sacred, and we get a glimpse of how God is at work in that secular whelm determining the timing of events so as to accomplish his purpose. Timing is a tool of God in all of history in both the secular and the sacred realm. The practical application of this truth is in becoming aware that God is not just interested in our spiritual life, but He is also interested in our secular life, and He can work in it to be a blessing to many.
We need to take timing seriously, and look for the ways we can do what is to be the greatest blessing. Nadine Kolmodin is the wife of one of our retired pastors. She left her purse in a shopping cart at a grocery store, and when she walked back to get it she had the pleasant surprise of finding another lady who had found it and turned it in. She was so grateful that she asked God to let her be that kind of blessing to someone else.
The very next week she went shopping and found a cart where a woman's billfold had been left. She opened it, and found it full of cash. She knew this was her chance to be a great blessing. She knew how upset the owner would be when she discovered her loss. She sat in her car near the cart and waited. Many cars came by, but then a young mother with her toddler stopped and began looking from side to side. This was the one she knew was the right one. She got out and held up the billfold for the mother to see. When the mother saw it she sank into the seat with the relief of great tension. "Oh," she said, "It's all my Christmas money. I was desperate." Nadine told her that she had done the same thing last week and had prayed to be able to help another as she had been helped. "My prayer has been answered, and now you can thank Him too." Blinking back her tears she could hardly express her gratitude. With a Merry Christmas they parted, both of them grateful that they had been part of this story of love.
This is what Christmas is all about. Love, that like the love of God, is looking for the leading of God to be where they need to be at the right time to do what they need to do to be what they need to be. In these days before Christmas let our prayer be, "Lord, give me guidance and let me be a part of your providential leading in the many varied ways you direct in the timing of Christmas.