Episode 1. It's Just Not Christmas
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Well, here we are again, it’s December. It’s almost the end of another year and it’s almost Christmas time, again. It happens year after year. Christmas. The question is, what do …
Well, here we are again, it’s December. It’s almost the end of another year and it’s almost Christmas time, again. It happens year after year. Christmas. The question is, what do you make of it, what do you do with it? It’s an age-old problem, Christmas.
THE PROBLEM WITH CHRISTMAS
I don’t know if you’ve ever thought of this but Christmas is a real problem for guys like me, preachers I mean. Year after year, we have to crank out yet another Christmas series. And for the first few years, that’s pretty easy but then after a while you start thinking to yourself, “Well, how am I going to put a new twist on Christmas this year?”
Last year, I approached it from this perspective, the year before from that perspective, the year before that from … well, you get the picture. There are only so many different perspectives on Christmas. Well, we’ve all been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Yeah, so it’s Christmas again, so what?
If you live in the Northern Hemisphere it’s an excuse for a few days off.
If you live in the Southern Hemisphere as I do, it’s probably the summer holidays that you’re looking forward to more than Christmas itself. A chance for a decent break, a bit of a much-needed R and R and sure Christmas is part of that but the Christmas bit can be a bit of a hassle. Buying presents, figuring out who has Christmas lunch with whom and then perhaps scooting off to Christmas dinner with another part of your family. Kids, uncles, aunts, grandparents – it all gets complicated. And then there’s the fact not everybody in the family gets on. You know Christmas day is one of the peak times of the year for domestic violence.
Even if it doesn’t get that bad you know there are going to be clashes or you’re going to have to smile sweetly at someone that you don’t really like or you just know that so and so is going to have too much to drink again this year.
Those are the burdens that many people carry into Christmas, it’s just the reality of life. So as things turn out, Christmas isn’t just a problem for preachers like me who have to dream up something fresh and new each year, it’s a problem for many, many people. I heard someone say once, a Bible believing Christian she was, “I hate Christmas, I wish we could just skip over it.” It’s pretty sad but it’s the reality for many people even those who actually believe in Jesus. So Christmas gets something of a bad rap, I wonder how many people who are out there who would just love to skip Christmas. I wonder?
Well, as you look ahead to the next ten days or so in the run up to Christmas, I wonder how you’re feeling about it all, exhausted, frustrated, anxious, stressed. What are the emotions that generally accompany this thing we call Christmas in your heart in your life? What are you feeling? Is Christmas a problem for you?
Can I be honest here? I struggle with the kids pantomime version of Christmas. I struggle with the whole Carols by Candlelight phenomenon around Christmas where people get together in parks and sing Christmas carols as though they believe them, when most of the entertainers up on the stage and on our television screens don’t have the remotest faith that Jesus is actually the Son of God.
It’s like we wrap this whole Christmas in tinsel and lights and tie a neat bow around it. And we make it out to be this happy time, when the truth is, for many people, well, they struggle with Christmas. Now I don’t mean to be a Christmas Grinch here. Personally, I love singing Christmas carols because they mean something to me but what I really want to know is why don’t we sing Christmas carols all year round? Why don’t we celebrate the coming of Jesus all year round?
I remember hosting a Christmas in July service at our Church some years back. It’s a bit of a phenomenon down under as many restaurants put on Christmas dinners in the middle of winter when it’s cold and at the service we actually sung Christmas carols. I can’t tell you the number of people who came up to me afterwards and told me how weird it was singing Silent Night in the middle of July.
Yeah, we wrap a whole bunch of rituals up in a nice neat package in December and we call it Christmas. And it’s all supposed to be sweetness and light and yet how much of it really, really, really speaks into our hearts about the wonder of what God did on that first Christmas?
What I want to do today is to unsettle you, to drag you out of your Christmas ritual comfort zone and ask you, “Why do you do what you do at Christmas time? Why are you racing around buying presents for people who don’t really need anything? Why do you put tinsel and Christmas decorations around your house and maybe even a Christmas wreath on your front door? What are the candles and the Christmas tree and presents and all that food really about? What do you do it for?”
If you stripped away all that packaging and paraphernalia what would Christmas actually be for you? Luke 2: 8-14:
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them and the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were terrified but the angel said to them, “don’t be afraid, for see I am bringing good news of great joy for all people. For to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
“This will be a sign for you, you’ll find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” and suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of heavenly hosts praising God and saying, “glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favours.”
So if you took the packaging and the paraphernalia and the ritual and the racing around away, is that what Christmas would mean to you? Would you in your heart shout out, “Glory to God in the highest heaven. Glory, glory, glory. Hallelujah?” Because if not, don’t you think you just might be wasting your time with all this Christmas nonsense that you go through each year?
All this pressure you put yourself under, all these presents you buy and the money you spend and the decorations you put up and the food that you stuff yourself with – is that what Christmas is all about?
Or in your heart, is it about the coming of Jesus Christ, the Son of God to be the Saviour of this world? The biggest Christmas gift of all history – the Son of God given to all humanity, given to you and given to me.
So let me ask you, what is your Christmas all about?
THE PROPHECIES OF OLD
I guess when it comes to this whole Christmas thing; we see it from where we sit. And for most of us, our perspective (our take on Christmas) comes through the ritual that surrounds it – a ritual that we’ve acted out year after year for as long as we can remember.
Sure, it’s changed a bit. When we were kids it was all about the excitement of presents. But you know the deal, you know all the things that you do in the weeks leading up to Christmas, you know how Christmas Day is going to pan out. You know the carols you’re going to sing and the food that you’re going to eat and the people you’re going to celebrate Christmas with. If it’s at all possible, this exciting celebration of Christmas has become something of a routine for you. A bit of a contradiction but it’s true for most of us, life is full of contradictions right?
When it comes to Christmas we kind of narrow our view, we lower our gaze and focus on the well-worn familiar path of the Christmas ritual. Whatever that looks like for each one of us, we narrow our perspective and like Pavlov’s dogs we get on with that part of life and in many respects, that’s how it was on that very first Christmas two thousand odd years ago. Although it wasn’t called Christmas back then. In fact, the first record of there being some celebration of Christmas doesn’t appear until 354 AD, three and a half centuries after the birth of Jesus.
And of course many of the modern-day traditions of Christmas that we celebrate on December 25th – for instance, eating turkey, having a Christmas tree, Santa Claus, presents, tinsel, lights, all of those are much, much more recent. In fact, the Christmas ritual that you and I take for granted today, as though it’s been around forever, is little more than a hundred years old, it’s a bit of a surprise, isn’t it?
But let’s wind the clock back even further to that first Christmas. People by and large were just going on with their daily business. The big news in town was of course the census. The Romans had ordered a stock take of all the people and in the absence of the technology we use today, the way you did it back then was to go back to your ancestral home.
And in the case of Joseph and therefore Mary, his embarrassingly pregnant betrothed, that meant going back to Bethlehem. The inns were full, the shepherds were out doing what shepherds did, tending their flocks in the field by night. Other than the disruption of the census, it was pretty much business as usual. And then wham, the light show in the skies in front of these shepherds. God broke into that “business as usual” in a spectacular way. You know what, I’m praying for this Christmas, God is going to break into your “business as usual” in a spectacular way too.
All these people were just living their lives, just like we do, head down, doing stuff that they did day after day when all along God had promised a Saviour.
There are quite a number of prophecies in what we now call the Old Testament (the Scriptures to the Jewish people) of the coming of a Saviour and principle among them is that He would be born in Bethlehem, Micah 5: 2-5:
But you O Bethlehem of Ephrathah who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel whose origin is of old from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labour has brought forth then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel and he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God and they shall live secure for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth and he shall be the one of peace.
The prophecy of the coming of the Saviour in great power in this tiny humble little village of Bethlehem and by the way the word Bethlehem means literally “the house of bread”. Remember how Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.”
How appropriate that He should be born in Bethlehem – the house of bread. And then there was the prophecy that He would be born to a virgin, now that’s pretty outrageous when you think about it, Isaiah chapter 7:14:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look the virgin woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel which means ‘God is with us.
And that is, of course, exactly what happened. There are quite a few more prophecies about the birth of Jesus that were given centuries before that He fulfilled – His lineage, the slaughter of the infants by Herrod, His need to flee to Egypt. The bottom line was that there were plenty of signs, plenty of prophecies, plenty of predictions.
Okay they were cryptic. I mean God revealed His Son in mystery and wonder. We always try to analyse God and put Him in a box. We try and figure out how He operates and then make a bunch of rules about Him. But you can’t do that with God. He does startling, creative, outrageous things like sending His Son, Jesus as the son of a carpenter in humble circumstances in some shed out the back of Bethlehem.
But the picture was always there, the big plan was always there. God had given some predictions about what was going to happen even as way back as His promise to Abraham. Right back there in the first Book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, God said to him, “Through you all nations shall be blessed” pointing forward to Jesus. But the people were just chugging along, business as usual and it was difficult (if not, impossible) for many of them to see, to perceive, to understand. Not all of them had the light show like the shepherds and the wise men.
As I look at the world today, it seems to me that still today most are asleep to what God did back then and what God is doing now. The only difference is that we know the whole story, we know what was going on and how it ends.
So as this Christmas approaches, you find yourself asleep to the wonder of what God is doing then let me say to you with all love and with all care, “Wake up. Don’t be asleep through yet another Christmas.” The wonder and the power of what God did back then, the doors that He opened for you through the coming of Jesus, the joy of what He brings to you today, the unspeakable glory that He opens up through His Son for you to spend eternity with Him, why would you want to sleep through that? Why would you want to be blind to that?
Those prophecies of old which is the faintest hint of what was to come. But now we know, now we can see … the sheer wonder.
THE REALITIES OF LIFE
There is something incredibly powerful about “business as usual”. If you think about how your life has played itself out, so far, I suspect that it’s been ninety nine percent humdrum and about half a percent of wonderful mountain top joy and another half a percent of tragedy and loss.
Sure, some people seem to have better lives than others. Some are born rich, some are born poor and very sadly for some people life is one long tragedy. I wish I could wave a magic wand and take all that away for those people who find themselves in that boat. But I just can’t and yet for most of us, most of our lives are occupied by the normal every day, business as usual, monotony which consumes most of our time, most of our attention and most of our focus. Am I right?
But beneath that monotony there is always, always, always a sneaking suspicion that there must be more. You’ve had that feeling, right? This sense that something is oppressing you, something is sidling you out of the sort of life that you think you should be living. There are in fact very few people on planet earth today that don’t have that feeling.
I used to have it but I don’t have it anymore. I’ve always been someone who’s tried to get out there and live life to the full. And all along, as hard as I tried, something was missing, things weren’t quite right and I couldn’t put my finger on it.
I want to wind the clock back to what was going on in the history of Israel around when Jesus was born. Not just the history of the nation but the lives of the ordinary people like you and me. In fact there’s a particular bunch of guys I want to focus on because they, to me, exemplify this “business as usual” but something was not quite right in their world. What am I yabbering on about here? I’m talking, of course, about the shepherds who were out watching their flocks by night.
Now, no doubt you’ve sung the Christmas carol many times and heard their story many times. By the way, the fact that they were out there watching their flocks by night makes it pretty certain that Jesus wasn’t born in December, Israel’s winter. Average December maximums of fifteen degrees Celsius or around sixty degrees Fahrenheit and of course nights were quite a bit cooler.
So in winter they generally brought their sheep into town where there was a communal pen where they were cared for overnight. So even though we celebrate Christmas in December, it probably didn’t happen then on the first Christmas.
Anyhow, here were these guys living out their “business as usual” tending their flocks by night but they weren’t living as free men, they were living as men in an occupied country. The Romans of course had occupied and ruled most of the known world back then. And in fact, the Romans had been the rulers for the last sixty or seventy years in Israel.
Now, in the overall history of Israel that’s pretty short but for those shepherds it was all that they could remember. The Romans were tough task masters and what made it even harder for the Israelites is that they knew they were God’s chosen people. They knew they were meant to be free and so they expected, kind of, sort of, maybe one day for God to send them a King – a Messiah, as He was called back then, God’s anointed King – in order to boot the Romans out and restore the kingdom of Israel, to set God’s people free. After all, God had done it before.
He’d set them free from captivity in Egypt. He’d set them free from captivity in Babylon. He’d set them free from the Seleucid Empire through the Maccabean Revolt only a century and a half before. That was their simplistic understanding of what should be going on.
So there they were, business as usual. But something wasn’t quite right, they were oppressed and that simply wasn’t the way it should have been. They were being robbed of the freedom, the life that they knew they were entitled to as God’s chosen people. Does that sound vaguely familiar to you? Does that sound like anyone that you know?
Now, people back then were kind of expecting this Messiah to come. But when you and I used this term “Messiah” we think of Jesus, right? That’s not who they were thinking about at all. They were thinking more about a strong warrior king, someone like King David of old who could muster an army, defeat the Romans and set the people free. After all, isn’t that what God promised to David years before? 2 Samuel 7: 12 and 13, He said to David:
When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors I will raise up your offspring after you who shall come forth from your body and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
So in effect, they were looking in the wrong direction for a saviour because they misinterpreted what God was on about. They thought they were going to get another King David. Again a bit like, in fact a lot like people today, that’s what was going on in the popular consciousness of ordinary people like those ‘business as usual’ shepherds back then and in many respects it’s what’s going on in the popular consciousness of ordinary people today.
People are looking for someone or something to set things right. They know that life is not all it should be so they turn to money or career or reputation or luxury or holidays or friends, you name it. They turn to it expecting “it” to make things better but it never does.
People have been looking in the wrong direction for a Saviour for thousands of years just like those shepherds and then God breaks into the world with such power and with such might and in such a surprising way that we can’t even begin to imagine what He’s up to. Luke 2: 8-14:
In that region were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night then an angel of the Lord stood before them and the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were terrified but the angel said to them, ‘don’t be afraid for see I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. To you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour who is the Messiah, the Lord.
This Messiah, this Saviour, He wasn’t what they expected Him to be – He still isn’t what we expect Him to be. What are you expecting Jesus to be? As we roll inexorably towards Christmas, yet again, what are you expecting to discover or are you so busy looking in a different direction that you’re going to miss this amazing surprise in Jesus?
Or are you running away as I was for many years because like the shepherds I was kind of afraid? This idea of God breaking into history by becoming one of us is too startling and too incomprehensible to begin to make sense.
Just listen with me quietly to what the angel went on to say to those startled, frightened, ‘business as usual’, confused shepherds. Luke 2: 15 – 20:
This will be a sign for you, you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.
And so …
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven the shepherds said to one another, ‘let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place which the Lord has made known to us’. So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and a child lying in a manger.
When they saw this they made known what had been told to them about this child and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen as it had been told to them. (Luke 2: 15 – 20)
Seems to me that you and I, like the shepherds, have a choice. We can continue to get on with business as usual, stay in our field and ignore Jesus. Or, we can go and check Him out for ourselves.
The only question that I’d ask is this; so how well has your ‘business as usual’ worked out for you so far?