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COVID-19 has had a profound and enduring impact on almost every aspect of human life. The economic toll in India and the rest of the world has been devastating. But the toll it has had on individual and community relationships has also been great. Normally, Christmas is the time when Christians all over India are the most active in reaching out to their non-Christian friends and neighbours; inviting them to their church Christmas programs. Many of our non- Christian friends expect us to invite them to our Christmas programs or at the very least to provide them Christmas cake. Our church in Bangalore has in the past used Christmas as an opportunity for evangelistic witness and we usually have our little building packed to the hilt so that many unbelievers can hear the gospel message.
This year though, things will be different, much different. Due to the ban (or restrictions) on large gatherings, we won’t be able to have the exact same Christmas program as last year. If churches invite a large number of outsiders to a Christmas program and there is an outbreak, the church will be accused of spreading the virus in the community. So, many churches may restrict the number of people that can come to a Christmas program as they practice social distancing. They might also have multiple programs so that more people can be accommodated. Another change will be masks. Wearing masks will be enforced among all who attend. Some churches might decide to have an outdoor program, although that will come with its own set of challenges, especially in a colder climate. Another change might be whether to give refreshments after the program. Providing snacks, which is a must for many churches, may be absent this year.
What if a lockdown is reimposed on India as we experienced in April and May? Then churches may switch to a video streaming Christmas meeting. What would that be like? That would be a major change from years past. Some churches have been overwhelmed by the multiple changes brought about by COVID and have decided to forego this year’s celebrations altogether. Other churches have decided to have a small service, but for their church members only.
However, there is good news even in the midst of these challenges. Even though the pandemic has changed many things about the celebration of Christmas, it can never change the facts about Christmas. Consider 1 John 1:1-4, which isn’t a Christmas passage per se, but gives us some unchanging truths about Christmas that are worth remembering during this season:
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.” (1 John 1:1–4)
SALVATION IS BY GRACE
Christmas means that salvation is by grace. This is an unchanging fact of Christmas. Jesus is called ‘the word’ and ‘eternal life’ in this passage. We are not being told merely that Jesus Christ has eternal life or even that he gives it. This verse says he is eternal life, salvation itself. This is one truth that we have found hidden in every Christmas passage. In every other religion the founder points to eternal life, but because Jesus is God come in the flesh, he is eternal life. To unite with him by faith, to know him in love, is to have this life. There is nothing else for you to achieve or attain.
In India we constantly hear the drumbeat of works based religion. Whether it’s the law of karma, adherence to the 5 pillars of Islam, or other world views that espouse salvation by human effort. But the message of Christmas is that they are all wrong. You may believe that you can earn your right to heaven with God (as in mainstream religion) or you may reject religion altogether and believe you simply have the moral resources within yourself to live the life a human being ought to live. If you hold either position, however, your life will be characterized by fear and insecurity because you will never feel like you are being quite good enough. Your life may be marked by pride and disdain for other people, if you feel like you actually have been good enough. Your life may be marked by self-loathing, if you feel you have failed. You can believe in the unchanging truth of Christmas, that you are saved by grace alone through faith in Christ alone. This is an unchanging truth of Christmas.
FELLOWSHIP WITH GOD IS POSSIBLE
Christmas means you can have fellowship with God. John wants his readers to believe in his testimony so they can enter fellowship with those who have fellowship with the Father and the Son (verse 3). Any Christian can enter into the same personal communion with God that the apostles and others had who had seen and known Jesus personally. The incarnation of Christ is unique when compared to all other faiths. When you read the Gospels, you are seeing God in human form. We see God’s perfections in ways that we can relate to. We see his love, his humility, his brilliance, his wisdom, and his compassion. But they are no longer abstractions. We see them in all their breathtaking, real-life forms. Through Jesus Christ, God becomes graspable, palpable. He becomes above all personal, someone with whom to have a relationship. Christmas and the incarnation mean that God went to infinite lengths to make himself one whom we can know personally. This is an unchanging truth of Christmas.
SO WE CAN HAVE JOY
Christmas means joy—“glad tidings of great joy.” Here in verse 4, the passage ends on the same note. John is saying, “My joy will not be complete until you have the same joy in fellowship with God that we do.” In John 16:22, Jesus promises that his followers’ joy will be unshakable because the “full measure” of Christ’s own joy will be reproduced in us (John 17:13)—a remarkable prospect. Biblical joy is not the kind that produces a fizziness or giddiness that goes away in the face of negative circumstances. It is more like the ballast that keeps a ship stable and upright in the water. The joy that Christmas brings, the assurance of God’s love and care, is like a subterranean river of joy, a fountain of mirth. It will always reinvigorate you no matter the circumstances of your life. This is an unchanging truth of Christmas.
So whatever you do differently this Christmas, whether as a church or as an individual or as a family, be encouraged by these unchangeable truths. If you have repented of your sin and put your trust in Christ, then your salvation is given to you as a gift, you have fellowship with God, and you have joy.