Christmas Breakthrough

What do you and I need to do to arrive this Christmas? by Phil Needham

One lone night about 2,000 years ago, an unusual star appeared. Thousands must have seen it. Strangely, only a few Magi to the east noticed a beam from it seeming to point to the west. Their science gave them no explanation for this astral phenomenon, and they knew of no precedent. They began to wonder if there was some kind of divinity behind the mystifying illumination. They were not Jews, but that night they became seekers. They quickly packed their bags and set out the following morning to a place they didn’t know, guided only by that beam of light. Puzzled family members and bemused neighbors must have wondered what these men thought they’d find on this journey.

An authentic spiritual journey does not begin by our going after what we already know or think we’ve figured out. It begins when we humble ourselves before the One who does know, and we take the risk of following the sign He gives us and trusting that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. 

I’m inviting you to think of this season as a journey to a manger and beyond. It begins with Advent, a journey of spiritual preparation for the journey. Christmas Day is arriving at our destination, kneeling before the infant Jesus in worship and giving Him everything we have. Christmastide (represented in the 12 days of Christmas) invites us to live the rest of our lives in new ways because Christ, God in human flesh, is now here in our midst.

I find a haunting resemblance between the story of the Magi and the story of early Appalachian settlers who set out, not knowing what lay before them on the other side of the wild mountain wilderness, not even sure of their exact destination. Like the Magi, they also stayed on the journey to its completion. Most of them were Christians, and again like the Magi, they were looking for a breakthrough to some new beginning. “I Wonder as I Wander,” an old Appalachian carol announces that “high from God’s heaven a star’s light did fall” announcing the arrival of “the promise of ages.” The breakthrough had begun!

The story of the Magi asks us to answer three questions. The first one is: Are you ready to travel? This is the Advent question. The Magi set out on their journey with a guiding star before them and gawking faces behind them, to find the promise of this new sign radiating from the heavens and seeming to touch the earth. It was a long, hard, dangerous journey. They carried treasures enough to attract robbers aplenty, and the danger was magnified because, well, they didn’t know exactly where they were going. They must have wondered at times if they were on a fool’s errand—a journey they weren’t in control of and a destiny they couldn’t define. But they went.

As did those pilgrims of Appalachia, who were also on a dangerous journey, trudging through the mountain wilderness to find ‘the promise of ages,’ and they, like the Magi, weren’t even sure what the promise was. They simply believed it would be worth the risk. 

No surprise that they did a lot of wondering in their wandering under those star-lit skies. They also did not know where they were going. And I doubt they knew where they were when they arrived. They only knew who they were. The carol identifies them: “poor on-’ry creatures like you and like I.”

Advent is the season to prepare ourselves to follow the star of our Lord Jesus and to let it take us to Bethlehem, the place of beginnings. Are we ready once again, or maybe for the first time, to get ourselves in shape to make the journey to find a manger in a stable, the starting place of the story of Jesus? Are we going to prepare ourselves to go deeper and further than we have come to at this point in our lives? Are we ready to behold Jesus, God in human flesh, who is so humble, so vulnerable, so unadorned—because He came for us poor, on-‘ry creatures, who have nowhere worth going in life unless we go with Him? Are we ready to take the journey?

The second question is the Christmas question: Will we be ready to see when we arrive? The Magi stuck to the journey until they arrived in Bethlehem. But Jerusalem was nearby, and they arrived there first. Jerusalem was the capital of the Jewish faith. What better place for the Jewish Messiah to make his appearance and establish his kingdom! And you know what they say: “If you can make it in Jerusalem, you can make it anywhere!”

Wrong, said the prophet Micah: The Lord’s ruler will come out of Bethlehem of Ephrathah, the least significant of Judah’s fortresses (Micah 5:2). Where’s that? Oh, just down the road to the south. Small town. Not much there. “Bethlehem?” said the travelers. “We’ve come all this way to go to some little cow town?”

King Herod, who knew all about Jewish expectations of a powerful, liberating messianic figure, met with the travelers. “Let me know if you find this ‘Messiah’ so that I can come and pay him homage, too.” Even though they were foreigners, the Magi sensed they’d best not tell Herod anything. 

Well, they made the short trip to Bethlehem. The radiance seemed to be pointing them to the outskirts. “What’s that? A cow stall? I thought we were following the beam from the star accurately. Is this where our long journey of faith ends?”

It was the beginning, the beginning of a new journey. They entered the stable. “It’s a cow stall alright; smells like one. So glad we brought the incense.” They came closer and stared in wonder. “No, no. Glad we brought ourselves, let’s worship.”

The Appalachian settlers loved to sing, “When Mary birthed Jesus, ‘twas in a cow stall with wise men and farmers and shepherds and all. But high from God’s heaven a star’s light did fall”—on a baby in a germ-infested crib, whose life was soon so endangered He had to be whisked off to Egypt. He, “the promise of ages?” Danger, in fact, was to follow Him all his earthly life, all the way to Calvary. 

What do you and I need to do to arrive this Christmas? If we just wait around for Christmas, or, if we wear ourselves out with endless holiday activity and do not focus on preparing ourselves to arrive at the birthing place of our Lord, we will miss Christmas. If we don’t risk the journey, we won’t arrive. But if we prepare ourselves, if we get in touch with our deepest spiritual longings during these days, we will arrive come Christmas. We will behold Him. We will worship Him. We will follow Him. We will live Him. 

We have arrived at the third question: Having come to Jesus who was born to save and remake us, are we now ready to start living in a new way? “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is not just a cute Christmas song. It is the Christmastide season, where we focus on how we start to live Christmas. What does it mean for us to live our lives in new ways because of Christ’s coming? To live in a way that looks so different from just surviving, or succeeding, or winning, or being popular—you know, the things our world culture worships? The baby in the Bethlehem manger would be tempted by those very things just before he launched his saving mission.

If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing,

A star in the sky, or a bird on the wing,

Or all of God’s angels in heav’n for to sing, 

He surely could have it,

‘cause he was the King.

But he didn’t. He said NO! He came to show us how to live life in all its true fullness, how to trust God’s love so deeply as to overcome our fear, how to love God and love others without trying to control them or manipulate their actions, and how to love to the point of suffering.

How can we possibly be up to living like that? Well, because “Jesus the Savior did come for to die for poor on-’ry creatures like you and like I” on a cross that released us from the burden of our sins. But that’s not all. The cross also empowers us to begin the journey of a Christlike life, a journey we can begin again this Christmas season.

It’s nice when we gather as a body of believers. We worship together and we help and support each other. But we shine in the world of darkness. Stars don’t shine during the day, only in the dark. Paul tells the church at Philippi to “shine like stars in the world because you hold on to the word of life (Phil. 2:15-16).

This season is all about Jesus. It’s also about us poor on-’ry creatures setting out on a journey to find Him, maybe for the first time, or again, in a new way. It’s about humbling ourselves before Him, and worshiping Him, and being changed by Him. It’s about getting better at letting the light of Jesus shine through us during the days of our lives.

So, what will your prayer be for yourself, for this season? 

Phil Needham and his wife Keitha are retired Salvation Army officers living in Atlanta. He is a published author and his book “Christmas Breakthrough” is available through Crest Books.

Illustration by Matt Chinworth