• johned@aibi.ph

A Pauper's Experience of Christmas

This article is not aiming to make you feel guilty.
It's aiming to make you think and act.


There has been a tremendous shift in Christianity in the last 15 years or so. In 1960 58% of professing Christians were in the Western world (America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand) now just under 70% are in developing nations. This is even more so among evangelicals. By the year 2000 77% of the world's evangelicals will be living in the Third World. This means that the "average evangelical Christian" lives in Africa or Asia and has an income in the order of $500 a year. Over 140,000 of them will die for their faith this year. Millions of Christians will be hungry, poor or malnourished on Christmas Day (estimates go as high as 200 million Third World Christians that suffer hunger).

In Papua New Guinea in the very area where I served as a missionary some 500,000 people - who are now mainly Christians, are in danger of starvation and malnutrition as the country's worst ever drought deepens and fires spread across the countryside destroying much of the food that the drought has left. This scenario can be repeated for nation after nation around the world. What will Christmas be like for "the average Christian"?

I think the average Christian family today would be like that of Joseph and Mary in biblical times. Materially they would be poor , they would own their own home and an animal and struggle to make ends meet. They would value wisdom and education and have some trade skills and would love the Lord with all their heart. They would be perplexed at the changes occurring around them and they would be expectantly looking for a Savior to come and help them out of the mess that is their world and their nation. In the Western Province of Papua New Guinea the average pastors wage when I was there was $5 a month. They lived from their gardens and from gifts of food and clothing. They were truly poor. They would sometimes have to stop ministry in order to attend to their gardens. Materially they had far less than Joseph and Mary did 2000 years ago. The living standard of "the average Christian" today is probably not much better than it was in Roman times (except in the West of course).

So what was Joseph's experience of Christmas?

Christmas Came First To The Poor

(James 2:1-5 NIV) My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism. {2} Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. {3} If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, "Here's a good seat for you," but say to the poor man, "You stand there" or "Sit on the floor by my feet," {4} have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? {5} Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?

God has chosen the poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the Kingdom He promised to those who love Him. The poor are coming into the kingdom in droves. The highest growth areas of the Kingdom such as China have a per capita income that is less than 5% of that of people in the USA.

Joseph and Mary considered themselves among the poor and their treatment by the innkeeper certainly suggests that they were not rich and influential. They seem to be ordinary village folk from the "hillbilly country" of Nazareth.

(Luke 1:46-55 NIV) And Mary said: "My soul glorifies the Lord {47} and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, {48} for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.....{52} He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. {53} He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. {54} He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful {55} to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers."

Mary clearly sees God as acting on behalf of the humble poor and against the proud and arrogant. She perceives herself to be a member of the poor and humble not the rich and powerful. Jesus was born not to a rich family or an influential family He was born to a humble family. Christmas came first to the poor.

The Blessing of God and The Contempt Of The World

So we see that at that first Christmas that Joseph and Mary experienced the blessing of God and the contempt of the world. To the thinking of those around them they just didn't count. Or rather they were counted. They were literally a "statistic" - just another family registering for a Roman census in Bethlehem. That first Christmas was the bureaucratic equivalent of a cattle dip. This Christmas countless poor Christians are going to be living in countries that don't celebrate Christmas to any extent. They celebrate Chinese New Year or Ramadan or the festivals of the Hindu gods. December the 25th is just another day they must work.

Christians in the Third World see more miracles and eat less roast beef. They have more gifts of the Spirit and less presents under the tree. They have more faith and more converts but less money and few church buildings. They have more persecution, more sickness and more encounters with Satan at his most powerful. In the midst of all this they are inheriting the Kingdom of God. Paul did not pull any punches with his first converts who lived under very similar conditions.

(Acts 14:21-22 NKJV) And when they had preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, {22} strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, "We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God."

The poor Christians will be experiencing many tribulations on Christmas Day and yet be entering the Kingdom of God at the same time. Did you know that Third World Christians make up the bulk of the world's missionary force and that Asian Christians send more missionaries than they receive? The gospel news of a Savior is being received by the billions of people who really want someone to save them from their sins.

The Poor Are Persecuted Because of Jesus

Just like Christians in the Third World today Joseph and Mary experienced persecution because of Jesus.

(Matthew 2:13-18 NIV) When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him."

Herod, a crazed and ruthless dictator (not unlike Joseph Stalin) was so threatened by the implications of the Messiahship and the divinity (Matthew 2:8"so that I may worship Him") of the baby Jesus that he went into a paranoid rage and ordered the killing of Bethlehem's innocent babies. This is not unlike situations that have arisen under similar dictatorships in Uganda, Haiti, Sudan and many other Third World countries.

{16} When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. {17} Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: {18} "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."

That first Christmas was marked by persecution, rage, political turmoil [see Matthew 2:3] and murder.

We have sanitized the context of Christmas. It was a disturbing and radical event. Both Herod and Mary - the two complete opposites in the drama realized that this Child would cause the downfall of the power structures then prevalent. Mary praised God that He had heard the cry of the humble and cast down rulers from their thrones. Herod, as one such ruler, reacted to oppose the divine decree in every way. The Magi perceived Jesus' cosmic significance but were at first unaware of Herod's insanity. This was the birth of a "stumbling stone and a rock of offense".

The spread of the gospel amongst the world's poor has not been gentle. It has been opposed at every turn by governments that see that the gospel empowers the poor and the exploited. The gospel of Jesus Christ gives the believer a frame of reference that puts the government second to God. Furthermore it gives a lucid and articulate ethical framework that clearly condemns many of their actions such as bribery and corruption. Particularly galling is the way the gospel treats all people equally. Thus Christians oppose the persecution of particular ethnic or racial groups or the economic exploitation of women and children. These injustices are often maintained by powerful vested interests who will stop at little in their quest to end the opposition. In China, Sudan , Vietnam and Pakistan those who believe this Christmas may well find themselves in jail or in mourning. At the current rate of persecution some 500 people will die for their faith on Christmas Day and they will nearly all be among the poor in the Third World.

Help I'm Feeling Guilty!

There is no need to wallow in guilt! It is good that some countries are blessed and have sound economic systems and freedom from religion. In the main it is countries that have traditionally been Christian and allowed Christian ethics to have some say in their systems that have prospered. Your feeling guilty will not do much good for those in the Third World but your prayers and your giving will. Don't sit around worrying about the problem - contribute to the solution.

Your denomination probably has an aid agency that helps the poor in these nations. Why not give it the value of one good Christmas present. Make one of your Christmas gifts to the poor. One Christian organization I can whole-heartedly recommend is TEAR Fund which is "The Evangelical Alliance Response Fund" it is very balanced, deeply committed to Jesus and acts with a high degree of integrity and sensitivity to the local scene. I have helped with a few of their local fundraising events and have found them to be great. They have a neat attitude to things and will also help you educate your church. I had better add that I am not paid by them or associated with them - just deeply impressed by them and what they are doing. Ask them for their Christmas gift catalogue which is where you select your "gift" except it goes to the poor. You can pick "gifts" such as contributing to famine relief or a solar oven or a set of gardening tools or part of the costs of a well for clean water. Since TEAR fund works through partners in Third World countries and these partners are also Christians the aid will reach our poorer brothers and sisters in the Lord.

There are probably dozens of ways you can help the "average Christian" this Christmas. The important thing is to make a willing start and to do what you can. You might not be able to do everything but you can do something and the something you can do - by God's grace you will do. I am sure that you will receive a blessing for your obedience and for your love of the poor just as Cornelius did.

(Acts 10:4 NIV) Cornelius stared at him in fear. "What is it, Lord?" he asked. The angel answered, "Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.

Giving to the poor pleases God and gets us treasure in Heaven.

(Luke 12:33 NIV) Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.

This treasure is indestructible and permanent and glorious. Giving to the poor is also a sign that we truly love God.

(1 John 3:16-18 NIV) This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. {17} If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? {18} Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.

Lets put our love into action this Christmas! Merry Christmas!


This article may be freely reproduced for non-profit ministry purposes but may not be sold in any way. For permission to use articles in your ministry, e-mail the editor, John Edmiston at johned@aibi.ph.