I’ve been hearing the Christmas story over and over since I was a little girl and I don’t remember ever being shocked by it. As a child I took it for granted that Sure! God could make a virgin give birth and what the heck? Why not in a barn in Bethlehem. And if he wanted angels to announce the birth, shepherds to bear the good news, and kings to travel afar, why not? He’s God!
So for many years, I have gone on quests to find new imaginative takes on the Christmas story in an effort to truly understand how shocking this story is. Has there ever been a more epic birth? With angelic birth announcements, cosmic lights beckoning guests from another country, and a death threat hanging over the baby’s head from birth? If I hadn’t heard it a billion times by now, I think I would find it fascinating. And then to realize that this is not a story being told like some myth made up by a wise old storyteller, but that the people in the story were real people and the events historical events that actually happened? That ought to be shocking.
But I have heard it a billion times already. And I find it *sorry* a little boring to hear the same story over and over again when there are so many new books to read.
I find this happens to me often with the Bible. I grew up on Moses and Noah and Jonah, so their stories no longer shock me the way, I think, they must have shocked the people who lived through them. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to read the whole thing for the first time as an adult, an experience perhaps some of you have had. How shocking! How puzzling! How mysterious and wonderful!
I’ve read a few books written by lifelong atheists who became believers as adults who say they were amazed when they first read God’s word because the Bible speaks with such unequivocal authority. This is the same reaction many had to Jesus’ teaching, as recorded by 3 of the 4 gospel writers (Matthew 7:29, Mark 1:22, Luke 4:32). “Who is this man who speaks with such authority?” His words are shocking and refreshing to the hearer who has never heard them before. Sometimes I fear my own familiarity with the words of God has robbed me of some joy in discovering it for the first time.
It’s not that the message is any less important or astounding, it’s just that it doesn’t FEEL astounding. I find myself tempted to ignore the text and read someone else’s words about God rather than his own words, turning to devotionals or blog posts or outstanding speakers to try to FEEL the story in the way that I want to.
But even as I embrace reading poetry, devotionals, and good books written by Christians I admire, I have come to realize that if I find the word of God boring, it’s not because it is boring. It is because I’m bored with it. The phrase in French for I’m bored (Je m’ennui) actually translates to “I bore myself.” This is such a perfect little phrase. If I’m bored, it is not God’s fault. My boredom does not reveal some flaw or shortcoming in the word. Rather, it reveals my weakness in that I am addicted to entertainment and novelty. I crave newness because it feels exciting. Usually my craving for newness reveals that I am more focused on my experience then on the truth. Yes, I believe the word of God is true, but I want it to make me feel a certain way. But the more I focus on “How does the scripture make me feel?” the more my focus is on me, and the harder it is to produce these feelings.
I’ve been reflecting this season on the thrill of newness in light of a book I just read that has been part of a larger transformation in my thinking about the scripture. This book is called None Like Him, and in it Jen Wilkin walks through 10 attributes of God that belong ONLY to God. As she walks through these attributes, she continually reminds her readers that because these attributes belong ONLY to God, by learning about God we can learn something about our own limitations. In one chapter, Jen describes how God is all-knowing so for him, there is nothing new. God is unchanging and all knowing, so he never learns anything new. He never experiences that short-lived thrill of finding out something he didn’t know before or seeing something from a new angle. Anything “new” we produce is made up of the elements on the planet that he invented in the first place, and anything beautiful we produce derives its beauty and order from ideas he put in the minds of those who produce these new things. The unceasing onslaught of “news” events seem important to us, but none of them is news to God or changes his plans for our planet. He inspired the writer of Ecclesiastes who coined the jaded phrase “Nothing new under the sun.”
For someone like me who loves NEW ideas, that makes it sound like God’s existence must be pretty boring. But I love G.K. Chesterton’s words on the joy God must get from repetition. Chesterton compares God’s enthusiasm for repetition to the way children rejoice in more of a good thing. Chesterton says:
“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
G.K. Chesterton is one of my favorite writers. For me, he has been a thinker whose ideas have consistently helped me to experience the truth of Christianity in fresh new ways when I get tired of the repetition. And this quote continually reminds me that God never tires of telling the same old story or in offering the same old grace and forgiveness. Thank God.
My kids love repetition. They love to do the same thing over and over and over, which wears me out. Some of Claire’s first words were “Do it again” and her brother Luke is now at the age where he is learning to say (in his own way) “Again!” So we do the same jokes, songs, games over and over with him.
And I have to admit that when it comes to Christmas traditions, I love the repetition, too. I like to haul out the same ornaments and decorations. I like to bake the same cookies I made as a little girl. Perhaps because at Christmas I regain that childlike appetite for repetition. Ask Paul: I have a hard time resisting the temptation to recreate my entire childhood Christmas experience for my kids. I just loved Christmas so much as a little girl. I make him endure endless replays of the John Denver and the Muppets album for just that reason.
And just like I’ve loved passing on my love for this silly Christmas album to my kids, I’m learning the way to make Christmas new even in repetition. Because if there is one area in my life in which I like repetition, it is music. I don’t really want to find new music anymore. I know what I like already, thank you very much.
So I suppose I’m offering myself, and perhaps you, this comfort for Christmas: don’t worry if the story doesn’t feel new to you this year. Listen to it like a favorite song. Don’t tune out the retelling of the old story. If you already know all the words, then sing along. It was God’s idea to have us repeat these stories year after year.
And also, this: I have learned that the best way to make the story feel new is to share it with someone for whom it is news. I love the words of Philemon 1:6 which say “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.” Our full knowledge of every good thing that we possess comes to us as we share our faith. Sharing this story with my children and with new believers renews my thrill of appreciation.
I’m reminded that before God helped his people escape from Egypt, he instituted a yearly tradition of remembrance both to help those who were about to experience it to remember, but also to help them pass this foundational story of His goodness to the next generation. He described a meal they were to have and a way they were to behave in preparing for that meal. He wanted these traditions woven into their yearly calendar because he wanted kids to grow up taking this story for granted, wanted kids to ask questions from their earliest days, to say “Why do we put lamb’s blood on the door, papa?” and “Why do we make our bread without yeast, mama?” He wanted every one to repeat this story and take it for granted as part of their back story.
And when Jesus himself came to Earth, the event we celebrate on Christmas, he ended his life just after another meal where he broke the bread and shared the cup, telling his disciples to repeat that meal in remembrance of him whenever they did it. Over and over, week after week after week. God wants us to remember and repeat. Some weeks we will feel the shock of it. Some weeks we won’t. But every time it will be true. And though I may have been drawn to Christ because of the way it made me feel, I have stayed with Christ because he is true.
I’ve been reading the whole Bible front to back again this year. There are “boring” parts, sure, but even the boring parts are true. And the more I read it, the more layers it adds to my understanding, like the rings of a tree. I want to live a life of long obedience in the same direction. I keep going back to the old story again and again to let it age me, let it grow me, so that the words become the words of my own thoughts, that the themes and connections of the story become more obvious, and the repetitions allow me to take for granted what is true. Yes, these repetitions help us take for granted who God is and what he has done. Out of all that repetition, I pray that God continually teaches me to see more clearly and treasure more dearly the oldest, most familiar truth there is.
So let’s read that old familiar story again together, to remind ourselves how good the good news is and to brush up the details as we prepare ourselves to share the old story with someone new.
Luke 2:1-21The Birth of Jesus Christ
2 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when[a] Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed,[b] who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
21 And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
(Written for Gateway Ladies Christmas gathering 2016.)