First, the digital age has made possible communication that is faster, cheaper, and sleeker. Many people are now to the point where the idea of having a human haul a letter across a country in order to hand deliver it to another human seems archaic and almost wasteful. Email and social media allow us to contact as many people as we want for free on a daily basis. No stamps. No disgusting envelope glue. No ever-changing address book.
The second reason the Christmas letter seems to be going away is more interesting to me though. And it’s actually the same reason why researchers are beginning to see an exodus of young people from Facebook. Fair or unfair, Christmas letters are perceived by many, much like Facebook posts, to be idealized self-promotion – a way to edit the image you present to the world of how well you’re doing, how beautiful your family is, and how adventurous, witty, or successful you are.
I’m certainly not suggesting that everyone who sends out a Christmas letter or posts an update on social media is doing so pridefully. But I’m suggesting that enough people, perhaps unwittingly, do exactly that, which causes a cynical generation to eventually get fed up. Just look at this portion of a Wikipedia entry for Christmas cards:
“While a practical notion, Christmas letters meet with a mixed reception; recipients may take it as boring minutiae, bragging, or a combination of the two” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_card
Wherever human hearts exist, wherever human hands touch, the shadow of sinful pride is cast. That includes Christmas cards, social media updates, and any other outlets we may find for talking about ourselves. Regardless of the medium, though, when people recognize self-promotion for what it is, they understandably tend to walk away from it.
So what should Christians remember?
I direct your attention, if it isn’t already there during Advent, to the biblical prophet Isaiah. Without pitting one Bible story against another, Isaiah’s call into ministry remains one of the most helpful to me as one who makes his living by talking about God.
When God came to Isaiah in the year King Uzziah died, Isaiah initially crumbled. Awestruck by the presence of the Lord and his mighty seraphs, Isaiah’s eyes were opened to a humbling reality – he was “a man of unclean lips.” (Isa. 6:5) Now it might seem like an obvious detail, but don’t forget what Isaiah did for a living. He was a prophet! In fact, it appears to be something of a family affair as we learn that his wife was a prophetess as well (Isa. 8:3). So, what is a prophet’s main tool for taking care of business? What is the one gift he/she possessed, that, if taken away, would necessarily cause them to lose their identity as a prophet? Or, in the context of what we’ve been discussing so far, if a prophet were writing a Christmas letter or Facebook post, what do you think they’d be inclined to talk/brag about?
ANSWER: Their “lips” (which is another way of saying of their prophetic voice – the thing which they had over the average person).
One of the most influential of God’s prophets in the Old Testament, and arguably the most well-educated, who would have faulted Isaiah for self-promotion? Wouldn’t Isaiah’s tweets have been amongst the most insightful and favorited? Wouldn’t Isaiah’s Christmas letter have included name-dropping the various kings he’d recently worked with. Wouldn’t Isaiah, his prophetess wife, and their two boys, all in matching sweaters, have made the cutest Christmas picture?
Isaiah wouldn’t have thought so. Not at this moment. When standing before the holy reality of his Almighty Lord, Isaiah was nothing but humble. The only thing he promoted at that time was his ugly, ruined, unclean lips before his perfect God. The thing which he would have been naturally tempted to see as his “righteousness” (i.e. the thing that made him an “acceptable” person) he now recognized was unclean, more like “filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6) than a trophy to display or status to post before the world.
I think God is telling Isaiah (and us) something about the gifts and talents that he gives us. They are blessings from his generous hand, but they cannot become our righteousness. They cannot be THE things on which we build our identity. They cannot be the basis for which we are acceptable to God, to others, or even to ourselves. They cannot be the theme of our lives that we promote to the world.
Consequently, your ultimate joy at Christmas (or any day) must not come from a job promotion, how well little Jimmy did in school or sports, your European vacation, or even how healthy everyone is. Those are all certainly things to be thankful for. But as sinners in a sinful world, the fact that we experience any joy is the product of generosity pouring down on us from the hand of an infinitely gracious God.
As Christians, our ultimate joy is Jesus, who not only also fell from the hands of the Father but had his own hands nailed to the cross along with our spiritual debt (Col. 2:14). In his Son, God has made a “double payment” (Isa. 40:2), a double gift, at Christmas – a Savior who not only wipes away all of our sins but also gives to us all of his righteousness. While most religions repent of sins in some capacity, Christians are unique in that they repent not only of the dirty deeds, but they also repent of their self-produced righteousness – the thing that they thought made them acceptable, decent, likable, postcard people.
I’m sure you’ve got lots of good news to share with loved ones this year. By all means, share it, and don’t worry about what cynical people may or may not think. But keep in mind, there’s still only one piece of Good News that rises above the rest again this year. Seriously, what’s a better status than this?!?! – “your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” (Isa. 6:7)