Keller, Timothy. Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ. Viking: New York, 2016. 148 pp. $20.00.
Just about all people, Christian or not, think they are familiar with the Christmas story. Even in our increasingly secular culture, Christmas continues to be a time when the truth of Christianity is seen and sung. Every December you can still see nativity scenes with Baby Jesus resting in a manger. You can still turn on the radio and hear songs proclaiming, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come! Let earth receive her King!” For Christians, every December is a time once again to remember wonderful doctrines like the incarnation and virgin birth.
Yet this familiarity can keep us from really understanding and celebrating Christmas like we should. Our worship and witness grow cold when we begin to assume we already know what Christmas is all about, that we already get it. It is all too easy, even as Christians, to become consumed with good things like buying gifts, hanging lights, and planning the holiday meal, because we take the true meaning behind those things for granted. It is all too easy for us to forget that Christmas is a unique time when our culture is inundated with the basics of the gospel, and we have the opportunity to help people really see and understand who Jesus is. Sometimes we need to experience the familiar truths of Christmas in a fresh, new way.
Tim Keller’s purpose in Hidden Christmas isn’t to uncover something about Christmas that was previously unknown, but to help us dive deeper into God’s Word so we once again experience God’s grace through Christmas like we should. Drawn from decades of preaching sermons in Christmas services, Keller focuses on eight passages of Scripture. While he begins with Isaiah 9:2-7 and finishes with 1 John 1:1-4, the majority of the book concentrates on the accounts of Jesus’ birth in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2.
Keller’s gift of explaining, illustrating, and applying the Bible is evident in every chapter. Similar to C. S. Lewis, whom he liberally quotes throughout his books, he is able to present important and complex theological truths in everyday language. You don’t feel as if you’re reading sermons or a theology textbook, but rather having a conversation. Keller continually focuses on the gospel, demonstrating throughout each chapter that the Christmas story is the gospel story, that the point of learning about Jesus’ birth is that God has come to reconcile sinners, and we can have eternal life because of his incarnation. Joy to the world and peace on earth are possible, really possible, because of what God has done in Christ.
As Hebrews 4:12 tells us, the Word of God truly is living and active, and we will always experience the grace of God anew as we return to it again and again, even the most familiar and well-read portions. I’ve been preaching Christmas sermons for ten years, and in every chapter I found a few insights into the Scriptures that I had never noticed. I was drawn a few different times during my reading to simply stop and give thanks or to sing a Christmas song in worship, overwhelmed by the grace of our God. I would recommend reading this book devotionally, as a chapter a day along with the selected portion of the Scripture would work well. This book would also make a great gift (ideally before Christmas!), both for those who want to deepen their understanding of Christmas or for those who are wondering what Christmas is really all about.