It was Christmas time in 1992 when I first visited Russia and Ukraine. In America battles were raging over nativity scenes on government property. It was a startling realization to find that in Russia, the former Soviet Union, nativity scenes were going up all over the place and government schools were inviting Christian ministers to speak to the classes about the birth of Jesus. Churches that were underground for years were now meeting openly and even building church buildings. As an American who grew up fearing the “We will bury you” rhetoric of Soviet leaders, it seemed like the world was backwards. In America we couldn’t mention God or religion on government property, but in Russia there was freedom to do that and more.
Sadly, such freedom in Russia and Ukraine is being challenged and no one knows where Russia (especially) will end up with regard to freedom of religion. Ukraine seems to be fairing better. I have spent time in Ukraine in 2011 and 2012, teaching in a conservative Baptist seminary and speaking in local churches. Things hardly seem any different than in our country for doing these ministries. In fact, the school that was started by BIEM under Peter and Sam Slobodian in the mid-90s in Kiev is going strong and students are starting churches all over the former Soviet Union. Some of the greatest Christian workers I have met are there faithfully serving the Lord and standing for the faith.
To be truthful, nativity scenes have never been my favorite thing, but we all understand the truth behind the images. I prefer a church scene with carolers singing Christmas songs. But I certainly sympathize with the battles for nativity scenes because those are battles for religious liberty. What I don’t like is the display of nativity scenes, or any other decoration, for personal merit or display. A Christmas decoration can be a witness for Christ if done in the right way, and many carry specific messages about Christ, but none should be done selfishly.
In our politically correct society, everyone is afraid to mention anything that might offend someone, and aren’t we all tired of people trying to make something spiritual out of everything from Santa Claus to giving gifts! “After all,” they say, “isn’t the real meaning of Christmas to give?” Forget speaking of Christ or incarnation, doing the good work of giving is what is important, and if we give in some way we are finding the real meaning of Christmas. So we are flooded with commercials and programs that never mention what God did in Bethlehem but make a saint out of anyone (of any lifestyle) who works in a soup kitchen. One wonders why human beings are so willing to make personal redemption a task rather than a gift from God. But I guess if they can reduce that task to a simple deed at Christmas time, it soothes the conscience!
My thoughts go back to that Christmas in the former Soviet Union. Does it take seventy years of oppressive atheism and communism to make a people long for the REAL meaning of Christmas? Does a nation have to give up freedom, allow perversion within, and persecution without, and perhaps even wait for a generation to die off, just to learn what is really true and important? Russia did. I hope and pray America will not. But at this time it seems we have no tolerance for belief in God, or revelation from His Word, or a message that says we need a Savior who is God incarnate. I’m not remembering only church life. What happened to a whole nation, conservative and liberal, cults and societies, religious and nonreligious, who allowed for God and His Word, respected church, honored public prayer, and fought for everyone’s right to have it that way?
It is an interesting fact that we do not find a lot of “holiday traditions” in the New Testament. We do not see the believers keeping a special day for the birth of Christ, much less reconstructing a little artifact of what that scene in Bethlehem looked like—and there may have been some there who would have known! It seems that Easter (as we and all the pagans call it) was celebrated every Sunday morning and not just once a year. There is a real silence in the New Testament about such things. Even Jewish feasts are only mentioned incidentally as the disciples (especially Paul) happened to be going to Jerusalem during that time. The churches, it seems, were busy going about their business in another way.
Now I have never objected to using religious or secular artifacts that remind us of good things. We have a Christmas tree at our house. We bake birthday cakes and blow out candles. We do not, however, keep Halloween in any form because these kinds of things have gone way beyond any worthwhile function. I certainly have no objection to being deeply patriotic or celebrating other national memorials such as Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, or the fourth of July. To the believer, however, these things are symbolisms that may have little or no real substance, including Christmas and Easter paraphernalia.
My proposition is this. The incarnation of God in the flesh (Emmanuel, God with us) must be believed and accepted (along with Christ’s death and resurrection) by simple faith in the heart. That faith, will create the real nativity scene. I am not saying that such faith takes the place of the original nativity. That fact cannot be changed. God became a man (actually at His divine conception nine months before His birth) and that is an undisputed fact of history. Whether anyone believes it or not cannot change what happened. A whole country may decide to outlaw its public mention and discard every memory of the fact. It is fact nonetheless. But even a scientific interest in Bethlehem’s manger or the arrangement of the stable will not fulfill the purpose for that event. Only a reception of the truth of it will truly represent the first nativity scene.
I think the apostle John was highly sensitive to this when he wrote his three epistles. Repeatedly he underscores the need to believe that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh. “Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist that denieth the Father and the Son” (1 Jn. 2:22). “”Every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist” (4:3). “For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist” (2 Jn. 7). John had no patience for a hypocrite who went through the motions of Christianity while denying truth of Christianity. We would really be politically incorrect today if we called a non-Christian who puts up Christmas decorations an antichrist!
Let me go back again to that Christmas in the former Soviet Union. That nation had rejected the truth of God’s incarnation for seventy years. It had robbed its people of the gospel and hope of eternal life for generations. But the reconstruction of nativity scenes after the fall of the iron curtain was not the meaning of Christmas again in that dark land. The reception of the truth of the incarnation was the real nativity scene. That image that I carry with me of my father-in-law preaching again to his own people; the hungry soul that, when he had received a New Testament, said, “Ah, bread!” that was the real Christmas. So now, the thriving churches that gather each Lord’s Day to worship the true God, this is the real nativity scene that is reconstructed anywhere and anytime the truth of the incarnation is received.
There was a time in America when not even nativity scenes were necessary to display the real meaning of Christmas. Believers gathered together, preached the gospel to friends and visitors, baptized their converts in a watery grave, solemnly memorialized the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and lifted their voices to God in praise and worship. For me, that is all the nativity scene I need. That is the real representation of the incarnation of Christ.
There was a time in America when nonbelievers allowed such nativity scenes without fear and animas. They too realized the great benefit that was gained living in a country with that kind of a foundation. No one was forced to believe it, but all benefited from it. Alexis de Tocqueville once said that America is great because America is good. When America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great. That is the spiritual cliff we are on. Americans have lived on the capital of a spiritual and good nation. But that capital is about gone. Contrary to atheistic dreamers, the true nativity scenes cannot be expunged here anymore than they can in countries like the Soviet Union. They will thrive in every corner where the gospel is preached. And it will be preached because that will always be given unto God and not to Caesar.
May we all create a real nativity scene in our hearts by true belief in Jesus Christ as our Savior. And may that scene be displayed throughout our needy land where ever true Christianity is found.
Our father’s God, to Thee, Author of liberty, to Thee we sing:
Long may our land be bright, with freedom’s holy light;
protect us by Thy might, Great God our King!
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel!