Eternity Shut in a Span

December is the season when tinsel-haloed angels draped in bedsheets announce the birth of Christ to bathrobe-clad shepherds on the church stage. There is a kind of charm in the way we tell the nativity story that might fool people into thinking that it is merely a rustic folktale. But the Bible’s account of the birth of Christ is not a children’s story. It is a record of history and an act of divine revelation.

Luke begins his recounting of the Nativity story by anchoring the story to a particular place at a moment of time. Luke starts his telling, “in the days of Herod, king of Judea” (Luke 1:5). Its true beginning, however, is much earlier than this. Earlier than the reign of Herod. Earlier than the prophets who predicted Jesus’ coming. Even earlier than the promise made in the Garden that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). Indeed, one might even say that this is a story without a beginning since, in the beginning, Jesus Christ, who is the Word, already was (John 1:1).

God, who has no beginning, entered time and space in the person of Jesus Christ. The God, who already was, took to Himself a human nature that He did not previously possess. The theological word for this is incarnation. It is a word that basically means “to become flesh.”

The Gospels describe the incarnation of Christ as a historical fact. But the Scriptures also point out that it was a revelatory event. The author of the letter to the Hebrews says that God has “spoken to us by his Son” and that Jesus is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb. 1:1, 3). This assertion does more than claim that Jesus is God in human form. It distinguishes Jesus from the Father, just as John does when he says that the Word was “with God” and also “was God” (John 1:1).

Poet Richard Crashaw captured the mystery of our Lord’s birth with these words:

Welcome, all Wonders in one sight!

Eternity shut in a span.

Summer to winter, day in night,

Heaven in earth, and God in man.

But the Son of God was not born simply to make a poetic statement about God. His humanity does more than translate the divine into human terms. Jesus was born to die and rise again. Without the cross and the resurrection, Jesus’ translation of the divine nature into human experience would be little more than a babble to us. Without the deliverance which the Savior’s death and resurrection secured, the portrait of God that the incarnation provides would be meaningless. We would suppress its truth, just as we push down the things that God has revealed about Himself “from what has been made” (Rom. 1:20).

Jesus is also much more than a moral example. Without the cross’s power to cover sin and “put to death” whatever belongs to the sinful nature, the incarnation is like a virtuoso’s musical score, beautiful to hear but impossible to perform (Col 3:5). Viewing Christ as little more than a moral example reduces Him to a mere recapitulation of the law instead of its fulfillment. We may, like John, be able to look and touch (1 John 1:1), but we would never be able to follow. Jesus took on a human nature not only to correct our false perceptions about what God is like but to rescue us from the sin which was the cause of this distortion in the first place.

Jesus is more than a moral example.

When Christmas comes around, there is an unfortunate tendency to co-opt the nativity story for other purposes by placing it within frameworks that diminish its bearing on the Bible’s theology of atonement. It has been portrayed as a morality play about the plight of refugees, divine lobbying for the Pro-Life platform, an argument for showing hospitality, a statement about the role of women in the church, and much more. Perhaps the account of Christ’s birth has implications for all these concerns, but they are not its primary point. The main point of the nativity is that God became human.

The doctrine of the incarnation does not teach that the God merely took up residence in the man Jesus, who was subsequently elevated to a divine status. Neither does it assert that God only appeared to be a human. Instead, this teaching of the Church asserts that the incarnate Christ was both truly God and truly man. His divine nature did not alter his human nature and his humanity did not diminish his divinity.

The incarnation is fundamental to the Christian faith because it is the foundation of Christ’s atoning work. Jesus was made in human likeness so that he could suffer and die on the cross for our sins (Phil. 2:7–8). The fact that Jesus was made like us ensures that he is able to be a merciful high priest, one who understands and sympathizes with our struggle against temptation (Heb. 2:17–18). Christ’s true humanity also meant that he could suffer in our place by taking on himself the penalty for our sin. Though he was tempted like us in every point, Jesus was without sin (Heb. 4:15). This enabled him to go beyond sympathy and provide a genuine remedy for our transgressions through the shedding of his blood.

Jesus was, as the old confession says, “very God of very God.” Jesus shared our humanity, “so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14). To accomplish this Jesus had to be made like us. As Hebrews 2:17 says, “For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.”

Jesus does not merely sympathize with our suffering and provide an example of what holiness looks like. He took our sin upon Himself. Jesus’ humanity meant that He could be pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. His punishment brought us peace. By His wounds, we are healed. Jesus’ life was an offering for sin. His death was the price paid to the law in compensation for our sins. Because we have been united with Christ in His death, we can also share the hope of His resurrection (Isa. 53:11–12).

When we separate Christmas from the cross, all that remains is a charming story about a babe in a manger. It may be a tale fit for children, but it has no value for broken sinners. The Nativity of Christ is more than a sweet story. It was a cosmic revolution that shook creation to its very foundation. It brought about a change in the Person of Christ so that He became what He previously was not, without ceasing to be what He was before. Still God, but now in the flesh. There was never a time when the Word was not, but there was a time when the Word had not yet become flesh. Unto us has been born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Let all the tinseled angels shout this news to bathrobed shepherds everywhere. This is no tale but a fact of history. Our God has come. Clothed in human nature. And we will never be the same.

Holy Days, Holidays, & Christmas

Christmas was important to me even before I called myself a Christian, though admittedly, this was mainly for non-religious reasons. I’ve long suspected that I have always loved Christmas more than any other holiday, not because of its spirituality but because it purchased my affections. It’s true that I loved the music and the pageantry. The glow of the lights and the smell of evergreen seemed to transport me to another world. But it was the presents that clinched the deal. When it came to gifts, Christmas was the motherload. Far better than birthdays or any other holiday.

When I became a follower of Jesus, I expected the change to transform Christmas the same way it transformed the rest of my life. I assumed the season, which seemed magical to me already, would become transcendent. It did not. If anything, the change somehow managed to dim the glow.

Perhaps this was because of the church culture to which I had become attached. The church tradition I joined was what is commonly described as a “low” church. Apart from Christmas and Easter, we didn’t follow the church calendar. Even the attention paid to those two days seemed grudging at times. We were proud of this bare-faced approach that disassociated us from Roman Catholicism, with its robes, smoke, and long lists of feasts that never seemed to involve actual food.

Of course, we had our own list of special days and celebrations. So I suppose you could say they were feasts of a sort. There were potlucks and suppers, the annual Valentine’s day banquet, and a church meal after every funeral. There were also a vast variety of informal meals, usually related to specific events or the passing of the seasons. But, in retrospect, it occurs to me that most of these occasions were more social than religious.

Christmas, on the other hand, was overtly religious. By it, we aimed to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. We did this with a measure of reserve. There were a few decorations, but they were not elaborate. A handful of evergreen sprigs and the occasional wreath decked out with red and green ribbons were usually enough. Some churches, which would normally have eschewed putting up a Christmas tree in the sanctuary because of its pagan roots, even constructed a large tree-shaped scaffold for the choir and covered it with pine branches.

We hunger for the presence of God
but tend to confuse transendence with ambiance.

Christmas Eve was the only time we allowed candles in the sanctuary. Instead of lighting them for the dead like Catholics, we held them in our hands. We dimmed the lights and sang Silent Night as the wax dripped on the upholstery of the pew in front of us. I liked the flickering shadows but hated the song, not because of its content but for its familiarity. It bored me. As a rule, my tastes in Christmas music tended toward the medieval. I would rather sing Prudentius or some repurposed Gregorian chant.

The low church tradition in which I still worship appears to have overcome its reticence about candles and greenery. Advent candles, midnight services on Christmas eve, and strung lights are so common these days that we hardly notice the difference anymore. The church I currently attend piles so many Christmas trees into the place of worship that it feels like we are at a campground instead of in the sanctuary. I have even visited a church that broadcasts Chuck Berry singing “Run, run, Rudolph!” through loudspeakers outside its front door. On the stage in the auditorium where the congregation meets, a smoke machine generates a thin shekinah of mechanical fog.

As for me, my tastes in worship, like my tastes in Christmas music, tend toward the minor key. I have always felt a little envious of my high church friends who, when they lift their eyes in worship, see arches and stained glass instead of ductwork. I have wondered what it would be like to preach a sermon wearing vestments. It would be refreshing to attend a church that feels like a church instead of feeling like I am visiting a shopping mall, an office complex, or a repurposed grocery store. But God, I suspect, does not really care. Even the tabernacle, raised by divine command and meticulously constructed according to the pattern revealed to Moses on the holy Mountain, turned out to be only “a copy and shadow of what is in heaven” (Heb. 8:5).

We hunger for a sense of the presence of God. But tend to confuse transcendence with ambiance. In its worship practices, the church seems to struggle to find the happy medium between Puritan austerity and baroque gaudiness. This struggle is further complicated by differences in culture, style, and taste. Not every church celebrates Christmas the same. Indeed, as far as Scripture is concerned, we do not need to observe Christmas as a holy day at all. There is certainly no evidence in the New Testament that the first Christians did. In his book Ancient Christian Worship, Andrew McGowan contrasts “the colorful calendars of feasts, fasts, and saints that churches of the fourth and fifth centuries celebrated” with “the relative silence” of the New Testament on such matters.[1] The apostle Paul criticized the Galatians for “observing special days and months and seasons and years” (Gal. 4:10). In Colossians 2:16, he warned the Colossians not to let anyone judge them “with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.” Christmas, it would seem, is not the queen of days. We are free to observe it or not observe it as we wish.

God’s presence is more likely to show itself
on the periphery of our daily experience
than in the church sanctuary.

Meanwhile, when God’s presence does show itself, it is more likely to be on the periphery of our daily experience than in the church sanctuary. God seems to inhabit the corners and shadows, preferring the unnamed days of ordinary time to the high holy days from which we expect so much. He does not come with fanfare. But as the carol says, silently, and in the places where all our hopes and fears meet. “No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

This is the message of Christmas. It is the old, old promise whispered in the Garden, shouted by the prophets, and trumpeted to shepherds on a hillside near Bethlehem. It is the good news that God has drawn near by taking on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. He came with a real body to the real world. He came to die, rise, and will one day return. Only then will we know what it is like to experience God’s presence in its fullness.


[1] Andrew B. McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 259.

Cold Easter

It’s getting to look a lot like Easter. Which, frankly, isn’t saying that much. Between Christmas and Easter, it’s plain to see which holiday is the favored child of the church calendar. The advent of Christmas is announced months in advance with music, decorations, movies, sales, and anticipatory feasting. We light candles, open doors on the advent calendar, and generally work ourselves into a state of hysterical glee and exhaustion.

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The Holy One of God

When I was a pastor, I noticed that my visits with people occasionally made them nervous. Maybe it was my personality. Perhaps I didn’t make enough small talk. But I think the cause lay elsewhere. I think they were sometimes uncomfortable because they saw me as a symbol of something else. Or, perhaps I should say, I was a symbol of someone else. One woman told me that she spent the whole day cleaning before I arrived. Then she said, “When the pastor visits, it’s almost like having God come to your house.” My wife, Jane, who had come with me, answered her with a laugh. “The difference is that God already knows what your closets look like.”

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The Savior With 10,000 Faces

A few years ago, it was popular for some Christians to wear wristbands with the initials WWJD on them. The letters stood for the question, “What would Jesus do?” The question is probably a good one. But it seems to assume that what Jesus would do is always evident to us. This isn’t always the case. In fact, the question the disciples asked more often than not was a very different one. Instead of wanting to know what Jesus would do, they asked, “Why did Jesus do that?” The disciples were often puzzled by Jesus. They were as confused by His actions as they were by His teaching.

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Christmas Traveler-free ebook by John Koessler

For some years now, one of the ways I have observed the Christmas season is by writing. I began with poems, the occasional story, then turned to essays. Over the last few years, I have been publishing these on my blog. This year I decided to collect the material into a small book and send it to my friends as a Christmas greeting. The idea occurred to me as I listened to Christmas music composed by Jazz musician Alfred Burt who, observing a tradition begun by his father, sent an original Christmas carol each year to family and friends. As someone who reads my blog, perhaps you will enjoy it too. You can download it from the link on my homepage below.

Church Hunting: What People Want from Church

I know a couple of people who are in the process of looking for a new church. One is a family member who recently retired and has more time on her hands. The other is a friend who is moving to a different state. In both cases, I was reminded how much the search process feels like dating. It is exciting, uncomfortable, and most visits feel like a mismatch.

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Growing into Salvation

Have you ever wished that you were taller or had eyes of a different color? Or maybe you wondered why you were better at basketball than someone else or could play the piano like a virtuoso. Some things are programmed by heredity and DNA. But not everything. There are things we can do to nurture growth and development, or we can hamper it.  

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Standing By Truth

I ate dinner in a church basement the other night with a group of friends and colleagues. When it was over our host dismissed us with a blessing and his assessment of our experience. It was, he assured us, the essence of Christian fellowship. This is the sort of thing one often hears at church.  At potlucks, missions conferences and the church’s services in general, we are told that we are enjoying a foretaste of heaven.

I hope not. Surely there is more to heaven than boiled beef and small conversation about last night’s game. The problem here is not really the menu or even the company-though both could stand improvement on occasion. The problem is the language we use to describe our experience. I am not condemning the art of small talk, which has a legitimate  place in the life of the church. I am criticizing the church’s slovenly approach to language and its penchant for meaningless hyperbole.

In an essay entitled “Standing by Words,” Wendell Berry speaks of the importance of fidelity to language. According to Berry “there is a necessary and indispensable connection between language and truth.” Berry states, “My impression is that we have seen, for perhaps a hundred and fifty years, a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning.” As a Church which is constituted by the Word and which worships and serves the one who is called the Word, we ought to be concerned about this decline. Language matters deeply to God. Instead, we ape the culture. We resort to cheap hyperbole to describe our Christian experience. We overstate, understate, and euphemize. We are civil tongued but inveterate liars.

The good news is that there is a remedy for this. According to Ephesians 4:15 we are to “speak the truth in love.” Unfortunately, most of us are proficient in only one of these languages. Either we speak the truth but without love. Or we speak out of love but cannot bring ourselves to tell the truth. We opt for the tired path of truism and cliché. But if  we are to speak as if language matters, such half-measures will never do.

Since You Asked

I was on the radio yesterday morning. It was one of those call-in programs where people ask questions about the Bible. The regular person (the man who has all the answers) was gone. So they called me. I didn’t mind. But I’m afraid I wasn’t very good at it. My answers were too tentative. Too qualified. Too many long pauses while I tried to locate the chapter and verse. On radio the rule is talk first and think later. Or at least, think while you talk. I can do both. But I find that it usually works better if I think first.

Still, I stumbled through to the best of my ability. Do this sort of thing often enough and I suppose you eventually come up with a supply of stock answers. I have answered questions on the radio often enough to notice that they are almost always along the same line. The questions themselves are not exactly the same. But they usually fall into the same basic categories. They are the sort of questions that everyone asks:

“If God is a God of love, why is there suffering?”

“Will God really punish the wicked?”

“Are we free to choose God or does he choose us?”

“And just who does God think he is anyway?”

 About half-way through the program (somewhere between the question about the Nephilim and the one about the origin of evil) it dawned on me that most of my callers were not looking for answers so much as they were hoping for air-time. They were not asking questions. They were making a point. And they are not the only ones. We all ask questions like this. We say things like, “Is there a reason you left your unwashed dishes in the sink?” or “Do I have to do it myself?”

 These are questions but only in the technical sense of the word. They are not intended to solicit information. Not really. More often than not the answer is implied in the question. So why do we ask them? Sometimes we ask them to make the other person feel foolish. The point made by the question is self-contradictory. More often the question is intended to provoke a response. The Bible is full of these kinds of questions.

God, in particular, seems fond of them:

“Where are you?”

“Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

“Who do people say I am?”

 If the Bible is any indication, we are just as prone to ask such questions of God:

“How long, O Lord, how long?”

“Will not the judge of all the earth do right?”

“Are you the One who was to come, or should we expect another?”

 Usually, our aim in asking God such questions is the same as my callers. We hope to make a point. We want God to see the inconsistency of his position. We aim to provoke him to action. And sometimes, we are even interested in his answer.

John’s latest book is coming in September. You can find out more about it at follygraceandpower.com.

Read John’s article on “the trajectory of worship” in the March issue of Christianity Today.