Is there any connection between Christmas and mission? Before I started writing this article, I had some ideas on this question. But, as I usually do, I thought I’d do some research before I started putting my own thoughts on to the computer screen. So, I did a search on Google for “mission and Christmas.” One of the top results was for www.thenorthpole.com . They present a bunch of “mission ideas” for helping people to feel “the spirit of Santa love.” We can all become Santa’s missionaries:
Take on The North Pole Mission – Make a difference in your family, communities, or the world. Find something you like to do that makes a positive difference in someone’s life. Find your passion. Then ask yourself, how can I do my passion and make a difference at the same time. It doesn’t matter how big or how small. It only matters that you do it.
Well, that wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I did my search. But it does illustrate something. Christmas can be entirely stripped of any reference to Jesus Christ. Christmas can become completely secularized and humanized. And yet the word “mission” can still somehow be attached to it! How does that work?
Missionaries for Santa
It begins with what we could call replacement theology. Because we want to reach as many people as possible, we take the true living God out of the picture. We take his Son Jesus Christ out of the picture as well (what was Christmas originally about again?). But we still need a god-like figure. Enter Saint Nicholas, a.k.a. Santa Claus. Since Roman Catholic saints have long been accustomed to receiving prayers and worship from the faithful, receiving full deity is not too big a step for ol’ Nick. After all, he is already credited with being all-knowing: “he knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been good or bad, etc.” The good news is that the new god appears to be even more benevolent than the One he replaced. Even if you’ve been bad, everyone gets at least some presents! Everybody deserves something. That’s the kind of Santa love we want to spread around as a new evangel (good news).
So, it makes sense that some well-meaning people decide to become Santa’s missionaries and encourage others to do the same. It’s all about doing good and helping others with some religious overtones. But everybody knows that it’s all just a fairy tale, one that nevertheless can inspire everyone to be kind and helpful. There are no strings attached – Nick doesn’t expect you to be totally committed to him. Nick is happy to be a part-time deity. I can be Santa’s missionary and do an anonymous good deed everyday, and for the rest, I live my life however I choose. A missionary calling with virtually no strings attached!
That’s Christmas and mission without any reference to God and what he did in Jesus Christ — the completely secularized version. We have this concept in biblical Reformed theology called “the antithesis.” At its root, the “antithesis” is the enmity that God has placed between the children of the woman and the children of the serpent. It is the dividing wall that separates the city of God from the city of man. The antithesis is there in principle, but it also needs to be put into practice in our daily lives. That includes how we think about Christmas and mission.
The Antithesis and Christmas
The first thing we need to do is strip Christmas of its pagan baggage. Christmas is about a gift, but it’s not about trees, holly, Roman Catholic saints, and so on. When we’ve stripped off all the heathen veneer, we’re left with the Saviour in a manger. We’re left with God incarnate – God appearing in human flesh. That’s what Christmas is really about: it’s about the incarnation of the Lord Jesus. In fact, I would suggest that we get rid of the name Christmas. It has its origins in the Roman Catholic faith; originally, it was “Christ-mass.” The combination of our Lord and the Roman Catholic mass is an ugly sight. Let’s call it “The Feast of the Incarnation.” I know it’s a bit longer (and I’m realistic that it probably won’t catch on), but at least we get rid of combining our Saviour’s beautiful name with an accursed idolatry. Doesn’t the antithesis lead us in that direction?
Next, we begin thinking about what the incarnation means for mission. In the incarnation, God sent his Son into the world. John 1:14 tells us, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” The sending of the Son into the world is without parallel in the history of salvation, also up to the present day. No one else has been sent by the Father to be freedom and salvation for the elect of God. So, the mission (sending) of Jesus Christ was entirely unique.
In sending Jesus Christ, God gave a gift which brought all the promises of the Old Testament to a climactic head. This includes the numerous promises regarding the nations. Think only of what God promised Abraham in Genesis 12: “…all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Similar notes can be heard throughout the OT, especially in the prophets. Therefore we can say that, with the incarnation, God shows himself to have a missionary heart. What he has created, he will also redeem. People from every tribe, tongue and nation, will be bought back from the sinful way of life inherited from their forefathers.
Before he ascended into heaven, the Lord Jesus also commissioned his apostles, and through them the church of all ages and places. He sent them out to preach the gospel, to disciple people from all nations, to baptize and teach (Matthew 28:18-20). The Lord Jesus was sent into the world to redeem the people of God’s choosing. Now, as a result of his incarnation and the redemptive work that followed, he sends out his church to gather in the fruits of his efforts (John 20:21). So it only makes sense to say that there would be no mission apart from the incarnation. The incarnation of the Lord Jesus is part of the foundation of mission.
Incarnation and Mission in 2009
That leads us to the Feast of the Incarnation in 2009. What does the incarnation say for mission in the here and now? First of all, consider what happened in the incarnation. God gave us the gift of his Son. God kept his promise to crush the head of the serpent. When we think about that, how can we not want to express our love and thankfulness to the Lord? One of the ways we express that is with our words to those who are outside of Christ. When God gives us opportunities, we’re so filled with love for God that we can’t help but speak about Christ. We pray for those kinds of opportunities! Furthermore, through our love and thankfulness, the incarnation also motivates us to care about what our “official” missionaries are doing. The Lord wants us to participate in praying for and supporting the families we’ve sent out to proclaim the gospel and establish and strengthen churches near and far. So, the incarnation says something to the motivation for mission.
The truth of Christ’s incarnation also encourages missionaries in the here and now. We know that when Christ took on our human flesh, he did so for the purpose of revealing God’s plan of salvation. As the Lord Jesus preached and taught, he experienced opposition. His enemies plotted to kill him on more than one occasion. They had rabid hatred for the gospel of grace that he embodied and preached. The Lord Jesus anticipated that those he sends out would experience the same treatment. He said in John 15:18 and :20, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that that it hated me first….If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” These words, combined with what we read in Hebrews 4 about Christ being a high priest who understands, gives missionaries encouragement. They can know that the incarnation means that their Master understands their struggles and difficulties, whether those come from basic issues of day-to-day survival in an unfamiliar setting or from trying to communicate the gospel to those from another culture.
Finally, though I already mentioned that Christ’s incarnation was unique, we can draw a valuable missionary lesson from it. In the incarnation, God gives himself to us in a powerful self-sacrificial act of love. Love for God and love for our neighbour drive mission. Do we want to know what that love should look like? Then we should look to what God did: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16). From this we learn that mission is about self-sacrifice. A missionary gives up all kinds of things for the sake of the gospel – this can be hard, but it is how the gospel has advanced over the last 2000 years. Men and women have given their lives, sometimes literally, so that Christ would be worshipped far and wide. The incarnation of Christ remains a powerful picture of the self-sacrificial love that ought to characterize the mission of the church in the here and now.
So, the incarnation and mission – there are a number of angles by which we can see that the two are connected. When our Lord Jesus came into this world, it was to turn the world upside down. He began to do that in his life and ministry on earth and he continued to do so after he ascended into heaven through his church and its mission. He still does it today in a way with which Santa can’t compete. The gospel of Jesus Christ holds out joy, hope, and peace, not only for the holiday season, but also for a life that lasts forever. This is so radically different from anything Santa or any other pseudo-religion can offer. Here we see the antithesis plain and clear. Believers have to stand on the right side and steer away from the Christmas pseudo-religion. The incarnation of Jesus Christ and the mission that follows is the only hope and light of the world.