Jesus or Santa: Who gives the Better Christmas Story?

Christmas has traditionally been about celebrating the birth of Jesus. The Gospel accounts of a virgin birth, angels appearing to shepherds, and wise men traveling from afar to see the baby Jesus in a manger provided a story that was convincing for our great-grandparents. That generation added symbols such as manger scenes, Christmas trees, lights, music and drama (ex. Dickens’ Christmas Carol) to give Christmas the festive foundation so it would become the juggernaut of celebrations that it is today.

But since then, perhaps because of our increasing secularization and modern doubt over the Christmas story (C’mon – a virgin birth – Really?!), we have culturally swapped that story for Santa and his mission to give gifts to boys and girls who have managed to stay off the naughty list. It is a great story for kids, and it can safely be discarded when we get older since it never claims to be true – just safely fun. It seems a better story in our modern world when we can take a needed break from the harsh realities of real life and experience, with our kids, a fun story. So Santa dominates our radio and television and ‘Happy Holidays’ is becoming the Christmas greeting of choice. It is safer for a modern world steeped in doubt, anxious to avoid offending, and happy to have a season to pretend.

I have always loved good stories. Whether mythical (like The Lord of the Rings), sci-fi (like Star Wars), or historical (like Braveheart), a story with an insurmountable challenge or threat, an authentic hero, and a plot that sees the hero vanquish the villain, but in an astonishing way.  Through a drama with a large scope, good stories have always absorbed my attention.

It was when I looked again at the Biblical Christmas story, to before the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth that I started to see that it also was a great story, with a plot and a depth that rival all classics. Even taken purely as story, the Biblical Christmas story beats the Santa replacement story just about any way you look at it. But to see this, you need to grasp the Biblical Christmas story as it was meant to be understood – as one chapter in a long epic, spanning the entire universe and enveloping the entire human race.

The Bible Christmas Story from its Beginning

This Christmas story really begins with a Creator. He makes everything that exists, including a Being of immense power, intelligence and beauty whom the Creator refers to as Day Star or Lucifer. Lucifer sets himself up as the Adversary of the Creator – and a universal showdown is on the table. The Creator has also made mankind in His Image so that they are emotional, intellectual and have the power to make choice. The Adversary scores first in their head-to-head by setting in motion a chain of events that results in the corruption of humans, so that they no longer function emotionally, mentally and volitionally as they did originally. Like a computer virus wreaking havoc in your computer, there is now a virus loose in mankind which causes sin – a missing of the target – creating the havoc we see in the world today.

So what would the Creator do? Use his infinite power to annihilate humans, or to imprison the Adversary? Here the plot takes an astonishing twist. Instead of responding with force and power like some cosmic Superman, the Creator makes a promise that He sets out in the form of a Riddle. The Creator’s riddle speaks mysteriously of ‘the woman’ and ‘an offspring’ which is described as a ‘he’. This ‘he’ would crush the ‘head’ of the Adversary. And that was it!  Who the ‘he’ was, or the ‘woman’, exactly how this would unfold – and when – was not clearly stated. The Adversary was now left pondering his next move and the first humans wondering how, and if, this Riddle would develop.

The unfolding Story – through a man and a nation

The drama continues when centuries later another riddle is given, this time to a traveler. This riddle was unique in that it promised a blessing to ‘all nations’.  Like Santa on Christmas Eve this promise was to travel to all the nations of the world – of which you and I are a part. Then, departing from the verbal format, a bizarre drama was acted out on a remote mountain top. Like a play, this drama looked forward to something that ‘will’ happen on the then remote mountain. But the what, when, how and with whom, was not directly stated. Those details remained a mystery. About 500 years later an equally bizarre drama with this same man’s descendants, now in another country, inaugurated a calendar that is still in effect today which contained pregnant markers in its yearly cycle.

Royalty enters the Story

After a further 500 years another chapter in this epic opens up. A certain title – from which we derive the world Christmas today – was inaugurated to a Royal Dynasty. Though spanning generations like today’s British monarchy, the title in this dynasty pointed to a coming specific person who would have worldwide significance.

Unfortunately, this Royal Dynasty, though it began with such promise, was destroyed. Like a tree that is severed from its root, this dynasty was smashed so that only a dead stump remained. Well, the stump was only mostly dead. In fact, through another riddle, it was promised that a Branch would one day shoot up from this seemingly dead stump.

Signs of the Unique Christmas Person

With that severing of the dynasty, the flow of promises, each equally mysterious, began to flow more rapidly through a group of diverse men living in different social strata, countries and cultures. The timing of the budding of the Branch was given, even a name was announced, though somewhat shrouded in imagery. What was not mysterious however was the peculiar ‘sign’ which would accompany it. The crystal clear sign was:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14 ca. 750 B.C.)

Though that promise seemed understandable (and seemingly impossible), what was not immediately clear was why such a sign was needed. Why was it necessary to circumvent a human father? Was the Creator against sex? In explaining the effect of this birth the riddle pointed back to the virus of sin running amok in our human race. A re-boot of the human species was going to be attempted to stamp out the virus.

But this only deepened the mystery because right after the Virgin birth announcement, the same seer continued with further bizarre predictions by stating that the arrival of this son would:

…In the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light …
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 1-2, 6)

How could it be that this ‘son’ would be called and identified with the Creator, the One who was utterly remote from mankind? Would God really become one of us? Before that perplexing question could even be entertained a gruesome ending to this whole saga was given in a funeral song. Or was it an ending?

The drama, riddles and puzzles were all inked and set down thousands of years ago. If you can read Hebrew you can read them all in the most ancient preserved writings of the ancient world – the Dead Sea Scrolls – only unearthed from their storage from deep antiquity a few decades ago. With the last message written there was then a long and expectant wait. Would the drama unfold as it had been written? In fact, was it even possible that all these strands of riddles could ever be simultaneously fulfilled?  Both the learned and unlearned pondered over these riddles as the centuries moved on.

If you skip all this and only start the Biblical Christmas story with Jesus, shepherds and wise men, then you miss the drama, the suspense and development of plot. You do not see the cosmic story. You probably will only see it as an antiquated tradition of your great-grandmother.  But really, the birth of Jesus was the start of a fulfillment of riddles that had spanned centuries.  The riddles kept the Adversary guessing and people living in hopeful expectation.

A Free & Verified Christmas Gift

But if you understand everything from the beginning you get a great story. Better yet, you and I get the opportunity to become characters written into this unfolding and continuing story. As Christmas is just as much about receiving gifts from loved ones as giving them, this story culminates in the offer of a gift to you and me. Receiving this gift does require trust in the Giver, the same kind of trust that Abraham had when he was offered a gift.

Better still, there is plenty of evidence that this is a facts-on-the-ground true story. Unlike Santa Claus, for whom we do not even try to seek verification in the North Pole, or on his sleigh in the sky, or find witnesses who have seen him stuck in a chimney, there is historical corroboration for Jesus – even the virgin birth part of the story. Roman and Jewish historians outside of the Bible refer to him. The places where all the riddles were spelled out and where Jesus walked are terra firma real. There is a Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Mount Moriah. Since we have the story written out for us before it happened we have evidence that there is one Author in this story. The fact that Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Daniel and the others could specify hundreds of years beforehand the events of Jesus’ birth, life and death is evidence that the Creator – who alone knows the future – has authored this Story, as an invitation for you and me to join Him in it.

If you make no effort you will probably only see and hear variant Santa stories this Christmas.  But, even for just the sake of a good story, I recommend the Biblical Christmas story.  It is much better.  Here is the story from the gospels of Matthew and Luke arranged chronologically.  It is less than 1300 words and will take 5 minutes to read.  You can follow the links therein to see how the account is built upon a deeper drama.  It is worth knowing better.

May it give you a Merry Christmas.

Best, Sudden Death ‘n the World Cup

As the World Cup in Brazil continues in the Sudden Death of the Quarter Finals the drama  intensifies.  Early favorites Spain and Italy crashed in the group stage while Uruguay’s Suarez bizarre gnawing of an Italian opponent fueled ‘biting’ commentary in the football gossip column.  In the Round of 16, high-profile diving (Netherland’s Robben against Mexico) as well as nail-biting penalty kick deciders (Coast Rica’s dramatic win over Greece) has vaulted both intrigue and suspense into the games.  With every game closely matched the favorites have gone to the edge of sudden death elimination as scrappy underdog teams have fought them every minute of play.  The BBC states that a wide variety of statistics show that this is the best World Cup tournament ever.

For pundits and social media discussions a question remains:  Who is the best player?  Prior to the tournament Messi was an early favorite.  Though he has played very well, Neymar has also excelled.  Columbia’s 22 year old Rodriguez’s tournament leading 5 goal performance and brilliant touch has vaulted his name into the ranks of the contenders.  We await the coming super-star showdowns as the Sudden Death knock-outs continue.

With such world-wide attention riveted on the World Cup and the drama surrounding the teams, games and players it might lead one to wonder whether our devotion will make a lasting mark on us and the world, melting our problems away.

George Best - the best footballer of his generation

George Best – the best footballer of his generation

But then I am reminded of another football player – also a household name – but in a previous era.  Then, like now, this player’s actions both on and off the pitch engendered much discussion and speculation.  He was, in the spirit of our reality TV and celebrity gossip world an ‘idol’.  Regarded as the best player in the world, the irony was that this was also his name – George Best.  He was one of those rare individuals who actually lived out his name.

Best - on the pitch

Best – on the pitch

In spite of arguably being the best football player in the world, George Best had a problem.  This problem is also one that you and I face.  As you can guess, his problem was not lack of football trophies, though heralding from a non-powerhouse football country of Northern Ireland, a World Cup performance eluded him.


Best brings home another trophy

Best’s charm and good looks gave him the nickname “the 5th Beatle” and a steady entourage of girlfriends and wives surrounded him – so his problem was not a lack of relationships and popularity.  Best also had a reputation for drink and fast-living, so his problem was not a lack of fun and good times.

Much of what we hope will give us the ‘good life’ Best got: talent, fame, money, friends and lovers.  He was the talk of the day, admired, loved and followed by so many.


Best – the 5th Beatle

But Best still had this problem that would not go away.  It is one so widespread and common, and so unavoidable that he probably kept himself from thinking about it too much – just as you & I are also tempted to.  Like Best, we may figure that the problem is too intractable and unsolvable that we are better off not thinking about it – perhaps by remaining singularly focused on the revolving sports and entertainment headlines of today.

George Best - Old & Sick

George Best on the left; Older.

George’s problem was that he got sick … got old … and eventually … he died.  True, he accelerated his demise by drinking to excess, but even had he been the picture of sobriety all his life he would only have delayed the inevitable – just as we can (perhaps) only delay the same inevitable fate that awaits us by healthy diet and proper exercise.

It is the utter finality and inescapability of death that pushes us to almost  denial.  Though it is not Sudden Death as in the knock out stage of the World Cup, it is Certain Death that is continually creeping up on us.  We do all we can not to think about it – since after all what can we do about it?  So for many of us our motto becomes “I’m not here for a long time, I am here for a good time”.  We fill our waking hours with work and with good fun – like mesmerizing ourselves with the latest in the non-stop sports and entertainment machine.

Maradonna - Invincible in the 1986 World Cup, here up against 6 Dutch players

Maradonna – Invincible in the 1986 World Cup up against 6 Dutch players

But with the perspective of seeing formerly invincible World Cup champions succumbing to the advances of Death I know that this generation of ‘idols’, in spite of their breath-taking prowess today, also are held in the steely grip of this unseen enemy, stronger by far than any opponent they face on the pitch.

Now if there was no possible solution out there then I would probably concur that it is better just to ‘live for today’ and not think about it.  After all, there is nothing out there that can avoid this approaching sting of Death.

Or is there?  This actually is the central facet of the gospel, the very reason that ‘gospel’ means ‘good news’.  The gospel is not about religious observances, whether worthwhile or

Maradonna - losing his invincibility

Maradonna – losing his invincibility

not; it is not about what we should do; nor is it about some ethereal heaven.  The gospel is that Jesus conquered death, erasing its sting, when he rose alive from the dead, not as a ghost, not like some zombie, nor as a spiritual metaphor – but historically, in the reality of this world, and in the flesh.  And he will give this same resurrection as a gift to any who would take it.

Now some do doubt whether this indeed did happen.  Fair enough, but consider this.  Many of the matches in this World Cup have ended with a dramatic goal in the last minute – even in extra time.  In the last seconds of play, the pessimists (fancying themselves as realists) on the sidelines could rightly say “The chance of scoring is very low”.  But the players in the game and their fans know that until the whistle actually blows there is still hope to seal the game.  In this hope they continue to give everything they have, trying every avenue that opens up to get that last precious goal.  They have nothing to lose and everything to gain by chasing every loose ball and running down every open lane.  All of us expect this from them.

So what about even an offhand possibility that Jesus could have risen as the gospel states?  The stakes are so game-changing that it is surely worth the effort to check it out.  And it can be scrutinized with an investigative, open-minded outlook; it need not be, as some suppose, believed with a religiously narrow-minded don’t-look-at-the-facts attitude.  For starters the textual reliability (ie whether the Biblical documents have been changed or messed with) of the New Testament accounts can be reasonably evaluated and the message of the gospel understood in summary.  Then the events of the alleged resurrection can be weighed with what we know happened in history.   And the Old Testament (written hundreds of years before Jesus ever walked the earth) can be evaluated to see if they really are prophetic utterances, woven together with a consistent theme predicting well in advance whether this indeed was a Divine plan.  There are many openings available to us to seek a lane that is suitable for our position.

I am planning to enjoy the rest of the World Cup, to be captivated with the drama of sudden death knock-outs, the finesse, as well as the prowess displayed by today’s top players of the ‘beautiful game’.  I hope that this would be a memorable tournament for you as well.  We will soon see who the best player in the world is today.  But perhaps with the perspective of knowing that this crop of contenders have only replaced yesterday’s older ‘Greats’, and in Qatar 2018 many of them will be supplanted by the next generation – and that (in the words of Pink Floyd)

You’re older … shorter of breath and one day closer to death

This is why Jesus came and this is why the gospel deserves to be considered.  I hope that you do.

The Subsequent Life Lived: Signature of the Virgin Birth

I wrote that hostile Jewish rabbis in the Talmud at least give a nod to the virgin birth of Jesus, and in my past post as ‘Santa’ I briefly showed the original prophecy in Isaiah (written about 750 BC) predicting the Virgin birth. There is still another point to cover on this question and it involves an observable aspect of the prophecy. Let’s start by looking at the original Isaiah prophecy in a more complete context.

Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. (Isaiah 7: 13-15)

Isaiah shown in historical timeline.  He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings

Isaiah shown in historical timeline. He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings

As I mentioned previously, proofs about virgin status are just about impossible to obtain even in principle. But the complete prophecy links the virgin birth in a cause – effect manner with something that is observable – the subsequent moral behaviour of the offspring from this contested virgin birth.

The son of the virgin ‘rejects the wrong and chooses the right’

The amazing part of this prophecy in Isaiah is that this son ‘will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right’. What Isaiah is saying is that as soon as he is old enough to make conscious decisions this son will ‘reject the wrong and choose the right’.  In our trying to digest the ‘virgin’ part of this prophecy we often forget this other part – and really that is just as incredulous.

I also have a young son. I love him, but for sure there is no way that on his own he is rejecting the wrong and choosing the right. My wife and I have to work, teach, remind, admonish, set an example, discipline, provide the right friends, make sure he sees proper role models, etc. to teach him to reject the wrong and choose the right – and even with all our effort there is no guarantee. And as a parent while I am trying to do this, it brings back memories of my early childhood when my parents were involved in the same struggle in teaching me to ‘reject the wrong and choose the right’. What do we mean when we say that a certain child is ‘spoiled’? Basically we mean that this child does not reject the wrong and choose the right. And what do we need to do to ‘make’ a spoiled child? If the parents do not expend all that effort and work, but just let nature takes it course – the child is spoiled automatically. It is as if we are fighting a ‘moral gravity’ where as soon as we cease conscious effort it easily goes downhill.

Moral behaviour is to a large extent observable and verifiable. The interesting thing about Jesus in the Gospel accounts is that he never sins. He always ‘rejects the wrong and chooses the right’ – exactly like Isaiah predicts. In fact Peter, a close friend, follower and companion of Jesus said of him that:

He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. (1 Peter 2:22)

The Failings of Other Biblical Heroes Openly Displayed

Now perhaps our first reaction is to dismiss this sinless portrayal of Jesus in the Bible as simply pious veneration. The thinking person must always be open to this possibility but if that is the case it is strange that other towering figures in the Bible are definitely NOT portrayed this way. If the Bible is simply a product of the human mind, we would expect this same pious veneration of other figures like Moses, Abraham and David. But this is not the case. The Bible records that on two occasions Abraham lied about his wife saying that she was only his sister (in Genesis 12:10-13 & Genesis 20:1-2). It also records that Moses murdered an Egyptian (Exodus 2:12) and on another occasion disobeyed God’s command (Numbers 20:6-12). David’s ghastly sin of adultery and subsequent cover-up murder exposed a glaring stain on his character.

In the Gospels the disciples are often seen as petty, arrogant and selfish. They argue about who among them is the most important. They want to call down fire from heaven in judgment on those who did not accept them. The amazing thing about how the Bible portrays all the characters in its pages, the important ones as well as the minor ones, is candid openness about their failures as well as their successes.

As one who has studied and seen ‘pious venerations’ in various traditions, it is not hard to see the contrast in the candid and unembellished failures consistently portrayed in the Bible to that in other traditions.  No, the pattern of revealing the failures of biblical characters is not a naturally religious tendency – yet this is how the Biblical characters are portrayed.

But not the Son of the Virgin

But this son prophesied by Isaiah, born of a virgin, rejects the wrong and chooses the right naturally and from his early age. It is instinct for him. For that to be possible he must have a different lineage. All the rest of us (including these other Biblical characters), trace back to Adam through their fathers and he did not ‘reject the wrong and chose the right’ as we saw.  Genetics passes the characteristics of the father to his offspring, so this rebellious nature of Adam was passed to all of us – even to the biblical prophets. But the son born of a virgin, by definition, would not have Adam as a father in his lineage. The parental line of this son would be different, and thus he could be different.

Jesus’ life fits this prophetic moral description to a tee – and makes sense of the reason for the virgin birth. This was not simply some random ‘miracle’ to bolster religious credulity in a story. There is a very clear reason for the need of a virgin birth. There is the need for a new man that is untainted by Adam. This new man could then have a different, though still human, nature – a nature that would be holy and thus acceptable to a Holy God.

The New Testament affirms this sinless life of Jesus in a very straight-forward and matter-of-fact manner by simply giving an account of his actions and teachings, without use of sensational superlatives or strong religious language. It presents him simply, and therefore realistically, as sinless.

Even if some cannot accept the ‘sinless’ claim, certainly, at the very least, Jesus is universally recognized as someone who lived a radically different moral life than we do.  This was a man who forgave his enemies while they were torturing him, who stood up for the weak and downtrodden, who refused to take up arms against his enemies, who refused to be seduced by the wealth, power and adulation that could have been his  – in short who treated others far differently than we do.  I have heard Richard Dawkins opine that Jesus was morally far ahead of others in his day.  I remember reading how John Lennon thought that Jesus was a moral reformer even if his disciples were not.  Mahatma Gandhi, who led a non-violent resistance to British rule in India, was inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus.  In short, even among those who do not follow him, Jesus is admired for his moral compass – this, at least, is generally not disputed about him.

But this observable effect, is linked causally to the Virgin Birth in this Isaiah prophecy.  And if one is observable and verifiable that gives a rational basis to believe the other.  The life Jesus lived is the visible signature of the Virgin Birth.  And it speaks to our need.

Flashback to Adam

The prophecy and longing for a virgin birth – the dawn of a New Man – coherently hearkens back to Adam.  We saw that the Genesis account records a Fall, much like the corruption of elves into orcs in the Lord of the Rings.  Ever since then mankind has been slaves to sin.  Though some teachings of the Bible cannot be verified by observation, the concept of slavery to sin is easily the most verifiable teaching of the Bible.  Just read a bit of history – pick any country and any time period; read a newspaper; or just reflect on your own thoughts and actions – sin is always there in its mutated and multi-faceted forms.

And the necessary link from the predicament of Adam to the solution in a Virgin Birth is why this birth was first foreshadowed and prophesied even earlier than Isaiah, it was Embedded in the Beginning.

The Virgin Birth is not some arbitrarily concocted idea to instill religious veneration.  It is logically, coherently and necessarily part of the overall Gospel – the Good News.  The recorded moral life of Jesus, lived in the open before friend and foe, attests to its reality.  That is Good News indeed, because the Gospel goes on to prophesy that those who receive this Son of the Virgin will inherit this same New Man nature.  Like caterpillars metamorphisizing to butterflies, or wooden Pinocchios into human sons, these many fallen Sons and Daughters of Adam will be transformed into this new likeness.  You have to take it on faith, but given the track record  of the other Messianic prophecies, it is a step of faith I am willing to take.

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