Which of You Will Cast the First Stone at My Nativity Scene?
I grew up in the town with the world’s largest Christmas decoration store. Most of the locals will tell you that it is the best place in the world to be during the month of December, especially if there is snow. Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland is packed with nativity scenes. They range from tiny to larger-than-life size. All of the churches in town had elaborate nativity scenes, as did a large number of the houses. There was hardly a person in my hometown that was ashamed of the Gospel, although not everyone believed.
In the year A.D. 845, the church had its final fight over iconoclasm. Icons vs. No Icons was finally settled. Icons won. In the subsequent 1200 years, some iconoclasts protested and a few still protest, today. Do they have a case, and should we listen to them?
My dear reader, you must be reminded of a few terms. First, legalism is a danger, when people in the church add rules to the Christian life and insist, they must be followed. Second, antinomianism is a danger, when people in the church discard the Law of God and dismiss it as irrelevant.
The issue is the creation of images, especially of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is the icon of God. Every depiction of Jesus is off. Popular American versions have Him looking like a cleaner cut version of a California hippie, of Swedish descent, in many photos or paintings (I mean no disrespect, nor do the well-intentioned artists). Still, we get what they give us. If my best Gospel preaching event was set to visual art, I fear it would be far worse looking than what they produce. The point is that none of us represent or present Jesus with the perfection He deserves.
I must confess I do struggle with Law and Grace. I believe many other Christians do, too. God’s Law was only kept by one person in history, the God-man, Jesus Christ. Jesus testified that He did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill the Law. Now, we who believe in Him, trust fully in His perfect obedience to the Law for us and for our salvation. We should never revert to trusting in obedience to the Law, as did the foolish Galatians.
Jesus Christ is righteous before God, by His works. Those “in Christ” are righteous before God because they are justified by His blood (Rom 5:9). The precious blood of Jesus has redeemed His people from every failure to keep God’s Law (1 Pet 1:19). There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1). Even the Day of Judgment is welcomed by Christians (Mt 24–25; Mk 13; Lk 21) because we know what the Judge of the living and the dead has done for us (Jn 10:11, 15; 2 Tim 4:1; 1 Pet 4:5).
In perfect obedience to God’s Law, Jesus went to the cross to save His people from their sins (Mt 1:21). Does God’s grace then give Christians a license to sin? May it never be!
Nativity scenes are not the means by which people are saved, any more so than one’s earnest attempt at Law-keeping. God’s Word teaches us that God saves His people, by His grace (Eph 2:8–9). He sent His Spirit into their hearts (Rom 5:5; 2 Cor 4:6), as the Word of life is preached to them. Where His grace is present, the heard Word gives the recipient the gift of faith (Rom 10:14–17; 12:3; Phil 1:29; Jas 1:21).
Faith is granted to God’s elect people, and the object of their faith is Christ crucified, as a finished work. Christians put no confidence in our flesh (Phil 3:3), to obey the Law because our flesh remains a body of death (Rom 7:24). There is nothing wrong with God’s Law, but everything is wrong with our sinful flesh. This is the reason Christians continue to sin (1 Jn 1:8), and it is why we humbly confess that we are wretched in and of ourselves. The Bible oft speaks of our “weakness.”
The Good News is that Christ lives in us, by His Spirit (Rom 8:9, 11; Gal 2:20). It is the Spirit who causes us to walk in God’s statutes (Ezek 36:27). It is a real civil war with the Christians, with the Spirit at odds with the flesh (Rom 7; Gal 5:17)). Victory by the Spirit is the practice of righteousness, which of course resembles the Law more than it does sin. The Law, however, is weak and useless and made nothing perfect (Heb 7:18) because our flesh is helpless. Therefore, our better hope is to come near to God (Heb 7:19), which resembles the nativity scene message. Come and see.
Grace reigns (Rom 5:21). The Spirit guides and directs (Prv 3:5–6; 16:13), and the Christian has his good and bad days with sin. Living under grace does not press the Christian, back to obedience to each prescription of the Law, however. The Christian walks by the Spirit and in faith (2 Cor 5:7; Gal 5:25). This is a walk of love (Eph 5:2), under the Law of Christ (Gal 6:2), which is to love God with everything and likewise one’s neighbor. They will know us by our love, when we do unto others, as we would have them do unto us (Lk 6:31). So, do not throw a stone at your neighbor’s nativity scene, unless you wish for him to throw a stone at your pharisaical traditions of trying to keep the Law with Moses.
The world is filled with innumerable distractions away from Christ Jesus our Lord. People need to hear of Him, and as icons of Christ, not yet perfected, we take every advantage to relate to our neighbors, as witnesses of Christ (Acts 1:8). The pagans see our nativity scenes, and they know something of who we are by them. This adds to our approach to them and them to us. It shows them that you know the way to Jesus, and that many and varied people came to worship the King, in the place of Bethlehem, where they found food for their souls, lying in a manger.
The minister preaches the Law to assure his congregation that they are indeed…Law breakers. No Christian, in the pharisaical spirit of obedience to the Law, will serve His Lord any better than a nativity scene with a graven image of baby Jesus. In other words, the marred image of a legalist is as sinful as a dumb icon of the Savior. That is the world we live in, and that is the reason for the incarnation of the Son of God (Jn 1:14).
The glorious irony of the nativity scene exposes our being presenters of graven images of Jesus, which illumines the fact that we need Jesus…the One portrayed for our all neighbors to see, and the One who we are clearly not ashamed of after the nativity set is put away (see the cross on our living room wall for more information).
In conclusion, God has issued His Law, and instead of pressing our neighbors into compliance to “do this” and “don’t do that,” we preach Christ crucified to sinners and saints because saints still sin, until the resurrection, when we will see Him as He is, and we will be like Him…glorified in perfect obedience, forever. Until then, when your neighbor asks about your nativity scene, tell him about the hope within you, which is not your ability to keep the Law…but Jesus Christ, the only hope of glory.
Spokane Valley, Washington
December 17, 2020