December 25, 2010
A Christmas Carol from PaulBy David R. Stokes
Christmas is more than a day in December -- it is a season. Reminders of this are all around us -- the weather, the gatherings, the music on the radio. It is not unusual for savvy media outlets to saturate their formats with all things Yuletide for a few weeks at the end of the year. It puts us "in the mood" -- not to mention puts money in their accounts.
What's your favorite Christmas song? Some like to hear about chestnuts roasting on an open fire -- others love to think about bells jingling. Yet others tear up (with good reason) thinking about a Holy Night so long ago. They may even want to fall on their knees.
A case can be made that the greatest Christmas song ever written is one with no familiar music. The tune is no longer available to us. But the lyrics -- ah, those lyrics -- well, they're actually inspired. As the Apostle Paul was writing to young Pastor Timothy about everything from order in the church to the dangers of greed, he gave us an easily overlooked but enduring Christmas nugget.
It may be not be a toe-tapper like I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus -- but it completely captures the essence of Christmas. That essence is incarnation. This means that God became one of us so that He could reach those of us willing to surrender to Him.
As the Apostle winds up a series of thoughts about the church and those who serve and lead, he pauses to reflect on a larger issue. Strategies and structure are not ends in themselves. They are secondary to powerful ideas. While he may have felt the need to give Timothy some practical advice about how to do his important job, he never lost sight of the why in all of it -- nor should we. There can be many controversies in life -- macro and micro. All of them require attention. Some of them require systems and structure. No doubt, this was something with which Timothy wrestled. Therefore, his wise mentor, Paul, offered his advice.
Things that tend to polarize people often have little to with objective truth. Instead, subjective experience is allowed to play too large a role in our lives and passions. When this happens, Paul's writings suggest that we need to stop and sing. And we should sing something very specific -- the most beautiful of all Christmas carols -- though it is highly unlikely that we'll hear the words blended with any seasonal music.
We are not told the style of music, nor are we told the instrument or instruments used to express it (if any). We are given just the words. They are inspired -- and they have endured. They are ancient words, yet ever new.
The first Christmas Carol is introduced in scripture this way: "Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great..." (I Timothy 3:16 NIV).
Communities of faith throughout history have wrestled with many things. But Paul reminds us all these centuries later that there are some no-brainers for the faithful. First and foremost is that most powerful of all ideas is that God has come to the earth -- the Word has been made flesh.
So, this season, let us reach back for one of the forgotten "oldies" -- a first-century worship favorite. They likely sang it in places like Ephesus, Thyatira, and Philippi. There were no ornate cathedrals or padded pews, no multimedia presentations to tantalize the eyes -- just words, powerful and profound. Go ahead and make up your own music -- but don't mess with the words. They are from God. They are a Christmas gift from the one who gave us the reason for the season.
"He appeared in a body,
Was vindicated by the Spirit,
Was seen by angels,
Was preached among the nations,
Was believed on in the world,
Was taken up in glory."
- I Timothy 3:16 (New International Version)