Topical Scripture: Philippians 2:5-11
It seems that everything about Christmas gets bigger each year. A Christmas tree in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, floats in a lagoon and stands 279 feet tall. Conversely, an 82-foot-tall tree hangs upside down from a stain glass ceiling of a mall in Paris, France. The 77-foot-tall Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York City was lit yesterday for the first time this year.
If you’re looking for something to take home, you might consider a nativity set from Bethlehem. It’s nearly seven feet wide, four feet deep, and five feet high, and goes for a mere $35,900.
It was all so different on that first Christmas day.
The humility of Christmas
Jesus could have chosen to be born to the Chief Priest and his family, where he would have grown up in the splendor of the temple and its traditions. He could have been the son of a Pharisee and grown up with all the respect afforded these men venerated as spiritual heroes.
But he chose to be born to a peasant teenage girl from a town so small that it is not named a single time in the Old Testament or in the extensive histories of Josephus. He chose for his earthly father a man so poor that he could afford only the offering of two pigeons at the ceremony celebrating his birth.
The place where he was born is marked with grandeur and majesty today, but it was not so then. It was a simple cave where animals were kept. His first crib was not made of wood—it was a stone feeding trough.
The theme continued across his life. He chose to grow up in Nazareth, just two miles from Sepphoris, the Roman capital of lower Galilee. He and his tekton father probably helped to build this massive, magnificent city. It had a large Jewish population; he could have lived there, but he did not.
As a boy of twelve, he astounded the religious teachers with his wisdom and knowledge; clearly, he could have been a famous rabbi in Jerusalem like them. But he chose to base his ministry in Capernaum, a small fishing town with a population of 1,500 on the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee.
He could have built a megachurch there; his first days of public ministry drew crowds from across the entire region to hear him and to be helped by him. But he chose to go to the other towns and villages instead.
Since he came to die for our sins, he could have arranged prophetic history so that he would be executed by his own Jewish people. This was the very effort they made at Mount Precipice (Luke 4:29). He would have been thrown off a ledge at least twice his height. If the fall did not break his neck, stoning would soon have rendered him unconscious as he died. Instead, he chose to be crucified, the most horrific form of torture ever devised.
Before his death, he could have arranged to be buried in a massive tomb that would still be celebrated today much like followers of Islam celebrate Muhammed and Russians venerate the remains of Lenin. But he was buried in a friend’s grave so anonymous that no one is positive of its location.
The choice of Christmas
Here’s the point to remember: All of this was his choice. He was the only baby in human history to choose his parents, the place of his birth, and the place where he would grow up. He chose to base his ministry in Capernaum rather than in Jerusalem and to die by Roman crucifixion. It was by his providence that he was buried in a borrowed tomb rather than a massive mausoleum.
One of the earliest hymns in Christian history tells the story like this: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ 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 2:5–8).
Christmas began when Jesus gave up his hold on his throne: he “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (v. 6). He let it go, stood up, and all of heaven watched in amazement. What would he do next?
He “emptied himself.” The Greek makes it clear that he chose to do this. He volunteered to come to earth, to become one of us that we might be one with him. He did this by “taking the form of a servant.” “Form” translates morphe, the unchanging essence. He didn’t just look like a servant—he became one for us.
That’s why he washed his disciples’ feet, and fed the five thousand, and touched the lepers, and forgave us from the cross. He chose to become a servant, for us.
How would he serve? He was “born in the likeness of men.” He was “born” as a man. He chose to come to earth not as a man in full possession of his omnipotence but as a helpless, defenseless baby. And so he was “found in human form.” “Form” translates schema, external appearance. His unchanging essence was that of a servant, even as he wore the temporary flesh of a human.
Then, finally, he “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” He chose to die in the cruelest manner possible for each of us. As St. Augustine said, God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.
And every step from crown to cross was his humble choice.
What does the humility of Christmas mean for us this season?
One: We should love others as God loves us. Verse 5 introduces the hymn: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” We are to have the same “mind,” the same attitude of service and sacrifice and love, that our Lord had for us. We are to love others as he loves us.
If you choose to love those who serve you in the hectic, chaotic stores this season, to love those who cut you off on the tollway, to love friends and family members amid all the demands of this season, to look for ways to love and serve as Jesus loves and serves you, your life will make a dramatic and demonstrable difference in the lives of others.
Richard Stearns, the former CEO of World Vision, notes: “The beautiful simplicity of our faith is that it distills down to the exact same bottom line for both the brilliant theologian and the five-year-old child: love God and love each other—period.”
Two: We should love ourselves as God loves us. Our culture judges us by how we look, what we have, where we live, and what we buy. It will measure this Christmas by what we spent and what we gave. There is no more hectic and hurried season of the year for many of us than Christmas.
This season, take time every day to remember that Jesus chose to be born for you. He chose to live and to die and rise again for you. He would do it all over again, just for you.
The best advice I ever received came from my youth minister when I was in high school: Always remember the source of your personal worth.
A number of years ago, the actor Kirk Douglas was a guest on the Johnny Carson show. They were talking about the experience of being recognized everywhere they went, with people pestering them because of their fame.
Then Douglas told about the time he was driving his car one day and stopped to pick up a hitchhiking sailor. When the sailor opened the door, looked in and saw Kirk Douglas. His jaw dropped and he exclaimed, “Do you know who you are?” Douglas said that it was a good question, one he’d been thinking about ever since.
Christmas tells us who God thinks you are. Do you agree?