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Artistry:  A Story to Tell

How I Learned to Love Jesus and Hate Christmas

The Incarnation: Both Message and Method

“And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory,
the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”
John the Apostle, I John 1:14 NKJ
“I love the 6lb.4oz. Baby Jesus”
Ricky Bobby, “Talladega Nights

Frustrated by Christmas

When I had been leading worship for about ten years, I found myself increasingly frustrated by Christmas, or at least, by the way Christmas impacted the music ministry. Worship leading was taking me deeper and deeper into Jesus but Christmas productions seemed to be stuck in the shallows. They seemed to be all about the peripherals: lights and carols, snow and sentiment, evergreens and brightly colored sweaters. I made up this joke: “I want to write a book called, “Fifteen years in the Ministry of Music” or, “How I Learned to Love Jesus and Hate Christmas.” When I told the joke to other worship leaders and music ministers, it always got a knowing laugh.

Of course, I didn’t hate Christmas or carols or lights or trips back home. I was as sentimental as the next guy. I was not critical of my colleagues who effectively used traditional and secular Christmas music to draw unbelievers into the house of God. But something born of worship was growing in my heart. I wanted to tell the world about the real Christmas, the mystery in the manger—the Incarnation—in a direct and unambiguous way. My experimentation with different forms for Christmas productions was finding a focus—telling the Jesus Story. I needed an artistic form to rescue me from the peripherals and let me go to the heart of Christmas. For me, music theatre was that form.

“I love the little 6lb. 4 oz. Baby Jesus.”

While I do not recommend the movie “Talladega Nights,” this quote from fictional race driver Ricky Bobby is worth noting. The world loves the Baby Jesus. He is cute and cuddly and the mysterious Mary and the gentle Joseph are standing by, glowing with their romance in the straw. The Baby Jesus is helpless as the shepherds adore Him and powerless before the kings. He doesn’t have a whip in His hands and money changers in this path. He isn’t weeping over the city. He isn’t going toe-to-toe with Satan in the wilderness or in the streets. He isn’t dining with Pharisees and prostitutes and tax collectors. He isn’t standing on a mountain speaking words, important but impossible to understand. He isn’t taking death by the jugular, wrestling it to the ground and leaving it in a tomb. While the world loves the oz. Baby Jesus, I found Him to be no match for a 35 ft faux evergreen tree. His soft cry is easily lost in the din of sleigh bells and wassailing. His humble stable-stained swaddling clothes fade before a real avalanche of fake snow. His call is not as urgent as the call of Grandma’s house. His gift is not as immediately gratifying as the promises of the bright boxes beneath the twinkling trees.

The Message

Yet, it is a fact: Jesus came as tiny baby. He emptied self of heavenly majesty and took on the form of man. This profound truth is our message at this season. The Incarnation (Christmas) is essential to the Atonement (Easter.) The Incarnation prevents the Jesus Story from degrading to the level of tragedy—a young innocent teacher, ahead of his time and misunderstood, cut down by the establishment to keep him quiet—as He is often presented on stage and in film by unbelievers. With the Incarnation as the beginning, the Jesus story becomes the adventure tale of a stealthy invader from a higher, unspotted world, who reveals the true nature of Creator God, who undermines the wicked power structures of men, who defeats death and hell and the grave by laying down his life willingly, who, in the fullness of time, rises again by the power of the Holy Spirit, who ascends to the highest throne of all, and who builds a church— baptized in His victorious Spirit and with holy fire—to be His witnesses.

Who else can tell this story? Who can be trusted to rescue this ancient narrative from the tinsel and trappings of the contemporary? Who will let His light shine into the darkness beyond the twinkling strings of electric lights? Only the believer knows this Jesus. We who have choirs and orchestras and worship teams and drama teams and sound boards and wireless mics and computerized lighting, must lead in the worship of the incarnate Deity, full of grace and truth—the mystery in the manger. Those of us who lack the resources of the mega-church yet burn with the same truth, can tell His story with the same divine utterance by the same Spirit. In the words of the late Dr. Robert E. Webber:

The missing link in Western theology is a deep appreciation for the incarnation and subsequent Christus Victor theme of how God incarnate won a victory over sin and death. Christus Victor was the primary atonement view of the early church…
Webber, Robert E., Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative,

The Method

Bob’s words are absolutely correct! The Incarnation is not just our message at Christmas, it is also God’s method for filling our art with His truth. Sometimes musicians are led by the music. Sometimes sentimental leaders are led by sentiment. Sometimes commercial or financial considerations are in the driver’s seat in our decision making. Some will protest that they are “becoming all things to all people to win some” as they mix the sentimental and commercial with the spiritual aspects of Christmas. I applaud their sincere desire to win souls. If their deep consideration of the Incarnation has brought them to this approach, who am I to question what God has led them to do? But, if all we have learned to appreciate is the music, old and new, we may be serving our patrons a platter of random thoughts mixing sentiment and selfishness with biblical pronouncements and narratives. The resulting ear candy and eye candy will be sweet but lacking in nourishment.

When we deepen our appreciation of the mystery in the manger, our public expressions will follow. Truth in our hearts will nourish us, making us stronger and more Christ-like. When our song selection comes from a heart burning with truth, our presentations will blaze with the glory of the Only Begotten of the Father, for like the Apostles, we will have seen Him and handled Him.

The promise of the Incarnation is this: what happened to Mary can happen to us! The Holy Spirit can overshadow us and conceive in us the Eternal Word of God. Over a period of time, the newborn truth in us will gestate. During this formative process, songs will get to us from surprising places. Characters will leap from the pages of Scripture to our hearts. The Truth of God will take root deep in our hearts and dwell richly there. When the days are accomplished we will bring forth a new expression of Jesus—delivered to the world through our human frailty and by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

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