In recent years, Timothy Keller has become one of my favorite spiritual writers currently writing today. I have read a handful of his books in whole or in part. The "in part" comes because he writes so thoughtfully and deeply that I often find myself taking notes as I read, which means I don't always have time to finish his books before they go back to the library. Though I am thankful I can always check them out again!
Not long ago, I discovered he had written a new book entitled Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ. I got the news from Byron Borger on his terrific blog at Hearts and Minds Books. I trust Borger a lot as a reviewer, so when he placed this book in first place on his "must reads" for Advent, and wrote that he was "very grateful for its clear headed teaching" I went straight to my library catalog and put it on hold. Since it was already December, I thought I might have a long wait, but to my surprise and delight, it hit the hold shelf quickly...giving me some unexpected Advent reading.
When it comes to spiritual books, I am usually a sipper, not a gulper, but here's the thing -- I couldn't put this book down. It's true it's relatively short: just eight chapters and 144 pages, but not being able to put it down is not something I am used to saying about a book that is essentially devotional in nature. Keller draws on years worth of Christmas sermons he's given as a Presbyterian pastor in a handful of churches, and all I can say is I imagine he is a terrifically compelling speaker. These chapters are so clear, so cogent, and so soaked in the grace and goodness of the gospel that any heart hungry to grow closer to Jesus is going to love reading them.
Essentially what he does in each chapter is focus on a biblical text that relates some part of the Christmas story, and then dives deep for real and powerful truth about what that text means and how it can affect us when we embrace the truth of the text. The Scriptural passages he chooses are excellent ones: some of them are the ones you expect (the annunciation, the angels imparting the good news to the shepherds, the "people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light," the wise men making their visit, etc.) and some of them are ones you might not expect quite as much, such as the genealogy passages about Jesus' lineage, the word Mary receives from Simeon that Jesus is destined to cause the rise and and fall of many and that a sword will pierce her soul, and the words of the apostle John in 1 John chapter 1 about how he had truly seen and looked at and touched the Word of Life. In each of these, and other cases, he expounds so clearly and beautifully on the passage, bringing certain things about it to light -- some I had pondered before, and some I honestly never had thought of in just quite the way he was pondering it.
This is a book that both comforts and challenges us with the truth of the incarnation: that Jesus truly was God who took on human flesh and descended from heaven to share our lives and to rescue us from sin and death, a rescue we could never ever perform for ourselves. Over and over, he points to this truth, and doesn't just point to it, but invites us to embrace it in all its radical wonder and beauty. He reminds us of what our lives can look like and be like -- truly free and wonderfully saved -- when we trust in the truth of these accounts, look to Jesus, and really place our trust in him as Savior of the world and King of our hearts.
His point in the introduction of the book is that "Christmas is the only Christian holy day that is also a major secular holiday..." although there are still glimmers of the reality it stands for in the ways that some secular people celebrate (putting up lights, listening to carols that still speak the gospel, giving gifts). His hope is that this little book can help people who celebrate Christmas without a full awareness of why they are celebrating to learn more about its real roots, because "to understand Christmas is to understand basic Christianity, the Gospel." So this is definitely a book you can recommend to friends who are not Christians, but who are open to reading and learning more about it.
On the other hand, it is also a book I think the church itself needs to read, so I also recommend it to brothers and sisters in the faith. For many of us, we have perhaps unconsciously fallen into celebrating Christmas in ways that dip far more into secular understandings that we realize. I don't necessarily mean that we buy totally into the season's commercialism (I know plenty of Christians who have simplified that element of the celebration, and who spend a good deal of time preparing their hearts and the hearts of their families through Advent preparation) but I think it's easy for all of us to fall into a simplistic sentimentalization of the story of Jesus' birth, perhaps partly because we've heard it so often and have so many nostalgic associations with it. Like our non-believing friends, we need to keep hearing the Gospel, even if we have already responded to it and given our lives to Jesus. We need to keep preaching (or letting other people preach) to our own hearts about how much we need God, how deeply he shows his love for us through the incarnation and ultimately through his suffering and death, how we need to rely on the resurrected Lord daily for his strength, mercy, and goodness.
This book was definitely the kind of preaching I needed this Advent. I might add that this is the first Advent which I have ever celebrated that has felt overshadowed by suffering and death: I lost my dear mother a few days before Christmas last year and am missing her so much; I have struggled in almost eleven months of treatment for late-stage cancer; and (in a much smaller part of everything, but still part of it) I am having to move from the home where I've lived for nearly twenty years to a brand new place. Put it all together, and you can see that I am a woman in need of contemplating the Christmas story anew -- but then isn't this really a need each one of us has? Because we all live in a world that is full of suffering, pain, homesickness, brokenness, worry, fear, and yes, death. THAT is the world Jesus came to, and he came to it because it was filled with such things. He came to bring life and to be the light. He came to save us because we could not save ourselves. And he came to bring comfort and rest to the weary, because he loves us so.
I'm deeply grateful that Timothy Keller reminded me of the power and truth of the Gospel in such compelling and clearly ordered reflections. I needed those reminders this year. If you do too, I highly recommend you find and read a copy of Hidden Christmas. I loved gulping it down like a parched woman who needed a long drink of living water, but I plan to go back to it and sip again and again.