If you’re my age, you probably know what Precious Moments figurines are—pudgy, little, pastel-colored people dripping with sap and crafted out of ceramic to make a certain class of person exclaim, “Isn’t that so cute?!” Perhaps the most precious of the Precious Moments is the one depicting the nativity scene. It takes precious—or puke--to a whole new level!
But whether you like Precious Moments or not, it seems to me that their creators are not alone in making Christmas precious. Hey, Christmas, has a lot going for it in the precious department. There’s a young mom who gives birth on the road. There’s a loyal husband (well almost) who is scrambling to find a place to see it happen. There are cows mooing and sheep baaing, or so we are told. There are even angels who show up, in fact a whole sky full, and their message is about peace on earth. Then add to that a touch of royalty. The Magi probably didn’t have any royal blood, but, come on, taking a little license with the story to make it a bit more precious is okay, isn’t it?
You might have guessed it, I am not much for this rendition of Christmas. I am sure for Mary and Joseph there were a precious moment or two, but don’t all parents have similar moments when they have their first child? In fact, if you ask me, I don’t think Christmas was about precious at all. It was a line-in-the-sand kind of moment if I’ve ever seen one.
Weeks after Jesus was born, when Mary and Joseph were still near Jerusalem, they headed up to the temple to clear themselves to head back home. While there, an old man named Simeon (who apparently had God on his mind a lot) got a peek of the baby Jesus. His reaction was rather startling. He grabbed the child into his arms said, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that is spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts might be revealed.” Now wait a second, that’s not the kind of thing you’re supposed to say to new parents! What’s precious about that?! Nothing, and that’s just the point.
Today, actually for a long time now, it’s been fashionable to make Jesus precious—to make him the nice guy who smiles at everyone, gives a bit of good advice now and then, and is glad to help you out of a jam. But that’s hardly the sum total of Jesus in the Bible. If it was, I don’t think we’d be talking about his crucifixion. No, Jesus, didn’t come to be precious, he came to draw a line in the sand. Just take a look at how he called a spade a spade whether you were friend or foe. It’s as if he didn’t care whether you liked him or not.
There is one part of the Christmas story I don’t remember ever being taught in church. It comes right after the Magi make their gift-bearing visit. King Herod didn’t like the scuttlebutt about the precious little Jesus, so he sent his death squad to kill every baby boy in Bethlehem hoping Jesus would be among the mix. I’d like to see Precious Moments try and depict that! Ask the mothers of those little boys what they thought of Jesus’ birth and I doubt ‘precious’ is the adjective they’d use.
Later when Jesus had grown into a man and had hit the teaching circuit he said in his usual blunt style, “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and I wish it was already kindled!...Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” If you think of Christmas as precious, you might find this all rather disturbing. Not so, if you think of Christmas less like a Hallmark movie and more like a search and rescue mission. Imagine the latter for a second. Think of a special ops unit parachuting into enemy-occupied territory. What are the people on the ground thinking? If you’re looking to be rescued, you can’t contain your excitement. But if you’re set on power and control, you’ll do your best to take the special ops down. Either way, what you are not saying is, “Oh, look at that, a nice man is parachuting down to us. How precious!”
Now, of course, all this about Jesus puts us in a rather awkward position. It means we’ve got to decide where we stand with respect to Jesus. Are we going to gag him, shoot him, and pretend he never landed in the first place or are we going to follow his lead out of enemy territory? That’s the line in the sand. That’s the line in the sand Simeon recognized at Jesus' birth. That’s the line in the sand Jesus said he came to draw. That’s why the gospels are replete with blunt assessments like this: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” You can call that precious if you want, but I am thinking there’s a better word for Christmas. You decide.
John likes to help people wrestle with the big questions of life in his work with Search Ministries. He served as a pastor in Houston for 16 years, earned his doctorate at Biola University, and is a contributing author of Reasons to Believe: Thoughtful Responses to Life’s Toughest Questions.