THE HARD PART OF CHRISTMAS

Most of the Christmas story is touching, warm, and encouraging; but not all of it. There is a hard part of the Bible’s Christmas accounts.

The hard part isn’t Joseph’s intention to divorce Mary when he found out she was pregnant. We understand that; but when he learned the truth about her pregnancy he proceeded to marry her.

We are sorry there was no room in the inn in Bethlehem for the expectant parents, but that isn’t the hard part either. Things worked out in the cave, barn, or whatever it was — the feeding trough (manger) was just fine for baby Jesus’ first crib.

The first visitors to see the baby weren’t from the upper class, but neither is that the hard part. The lowly shepherds were elated to receive the angelic message. Not only that, after they visited the newborn baby they became the first believers to share the good news.

The hard part of Christmas is Matthew’s account of the later visit of the Magi and Herod’s response to their report of the birth a king. He was “disturbed” and lied telling them to let him know when they found the child so he could “go and worship him.”

Herod’s initial plan didn’t work because God intervened through a dream and the Magi did not return to him. Matthew 2:16 tells us, “ 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.” The infant Jesus was not killed because God also warned Joseph in a dream about Herod’s plan and they went to Egypt.

Jesus wasn’t killed, but the hard part of Christmas is that other boys in the area age two and younger were. We don’t know how many, but some historians report there were anywhere from 30 to 60 boys murdered. It’s not surprising that the least talked about part of the Christmas accounts is Herod’s order to kill all the baby boys two years of age and younger. Pastor John McCallum calls it “A Dark Story.”

I clearly remember speaking many years ago at a Christmas Eve service about this hard part of Christmas. I was chastised afterwards by one unhappy attendee about the subject matter of my talk. Why did I throw a wet blanket on the celebration and make people sad on Christmas Eve? My answer: it’s a hard part for sure, but it is a part of the story.

McCallum notes, “God sent his only Son to be born into a world like this, a world where kings abuse power, people are victimized, and children are murdered, a world where children suffer and parents weep for them, a world where Satan has a foothold and where evil appears to win as many battles as it loses and sometimes even more. This is what people cynically call the real world.”

Even this close to Christmas we might remind ourselves that although the baby Jesus wasn’t killed, the adult Jesus was. Of course, that is why he came: as the angel told Joseph, to save his people from their sins.

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HOME FOR CHRISTMAS

For most of us Christmas is the most sentimental of all the holidays. And that is largely  because of our association of Christmas with home and family. It is certainly the most sentimental for me. (It may surprise you, but I get emotional at the end of both Grease and Dirty Dancing every time I watch one of them!)

My favorite Christmas songs underscore the point. Every time I hear the Eagles’ version of “Please Come Home for Christmas” I get nostalgic. If possible, Christmas is “the time to be with the ones you love.” I don’t care who sings “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” it always gets to me. And last week I heard one about being home for the holidays by Kenny Loggins entitled “Celebrate Me Home.”

When I was in college (45 few years ago) I remember students asking one another “are you going home for Christmas?” Because the break was shorter not everyone went home for Thanksgiving, but pretty much everyone did for Christmas.

I lived just north of Cincinnati and it was easy for me to go home on holidays or for a weekend or for just an evening. But two years I did not go home for Christmas. One year I went to Florida with friends and another year to Florida and then to the Bahamas. Both trips were adventuresome and fun, but both times I missed being home for Christmas.

The 10 years Jan and I lived in the Philadelphia area we went back to Cincy every year for Christmas. During our 32 years in California we only went back for Christmas a couple of times, but in California we had our two children with us most of those years as well as “family” from our church.

Here are a four quotes that reflect the theme:

“Christmas is all about love, family and children. It doesn’t matter what we ear or what presents we get as long as the holidays are spent with loved one.”  Anonymous

“The best present on Christmas is spending some good time with family realizing the importance of love sharing things that give you real joy. So have fun with your family.”  Anonymous

“Christmas time is cherished family time; family time is sacred time.”  Anonymous

“The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree: the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other.”  Burton Hillis

Christmas last year we had just moved and were living with our daughter and two grandsons. Our son, Rob, and his girlfriend, Jill, joined us. Even though we had just moved and did not have our own house, we were home for Christmas because we were together for Christmas.

This week Jan and I will celebrate our second Christmas in Amarillo and our first one in our own house. Only the two of us will be in town for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but we’ll be home for Christmas because we will be together. And not only that, more family will be joining us Christmas night.

The reality is that not everyone can be or chooses to be home or with family for Christmas. And there are a variety of reasons why that is so. Whatever your situation or circumstances, I hope you have a meaningful and enjoyable Christmas.

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THE THEOLOGY OF CHRISTMAS

To alter and borrow from a song many of us sang as children, Christmas means different things to different people. For some it is a winter holiday representing time off from work or school; for others it is a time of special parties, decorations, music, and food; and for many it is an occasion of giving and receiving gifts.

I am not a distant relative of the Grinch as I do not oppose time off, parties, decorations, music, food, or giving and receiving gifts. But as enjoyable and fun as all of these are, none are at what I would call the heart of Christmas. The heart of Christmas is the annual commemoration and celebration of the birth of Jesus. In this post I want to give an overview of what I call “The Theology of Christmas.”

I hope no one is put off by the word theology. If it suggests to you that we will be challenged to think more deeply than we often do, that is exactly what I have in mind. And why shouldn’t we from time to time wrestle with the more profound aspects of our faith? Not everything about Christianity is simple or easily understood.

 In the New Testament we have four accounts of the life of Jesus called Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Mark doesn’t tell us anything about the birth of Jesus. Matthew and Luke both begin with the birth of Jesus. John doesn’t have a birth account, but John 1:1-18 lays out the theology of Christmas with verse 14 being the cornerstone.

In verse one John writes about the Word pointing out that “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Word is John’s designation for the second person of the Trinity, the one we know as Jesus. Verse 14 is John’s Christmas verse: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

The theology of Christmas is that Jesus was and is God. These verses teach what is called the pre-existence of Jesus. Jesus did not come into existence when he was conceived in Mary’s womb. God has always been—he is eternal. And so is Jesus, because he is God.

The theology of Christmas also is that in Jesus, God became human. That’s the point of John’s Christmas verse declaration in verse 14, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” The theological term for this, for God becoming a man, is incarnation. And that is not easy for us to comprehend. But just because it is difficult to comprehend does not mean we don’t believe it.

In the words of Bible commentator Leon Morris, “John is writing about a genuine incarnation.  The Word took upon himself our flesh, with all that that means.  He accepted the limitations that are a part and parcel of human existence.” Jesus became weary and he needed sleep; he became hungry and he became thirsty, he felt both anger, joy, and sorrow; and in the Garden of Gethsemane he was troubled and desired companionship.

Here’s the bottom line of the theology of Christmas: in Jesus, God became a man; yet when he became a man he did not cease being God. He was both God and man.

The theology of Christmas means we have a Savior. That was the message of the angel to Joseph in Matthew 1:21 and the message of the angel to the shepherds in Luke 2:10 and 11. You and I need a Savior.

The theology of Christmas also means we have a Savior who understands us. Because God became man in Jesus we have a Savior who identifies with us in our needs. The writer of Hebrews makes that clear in Hebrews 2:17 and 18 and again in 4:14-16. Because Jesus understands He wants to and can help us when we are tempted. (I encourage you, if possible, to grab your Bible and read those two passages right now.)

The theology of Christmas is not simple and easily understood; but challenging, deeply profound, and immensely meaningful.

This year enjoy your time off, parties, decorations, music, food, and giving and receiving gifts; but make sure you don’t overlook the heart of Christmas.

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TRADEOFFS AND CHRISTMAS

A lot of us will be exchanging gifts this week, but I don’t think any of us considers his or her gift exchanges tradeoffs. To me, a tradeoff is when you give up something in order to gain something. And if it is a real tradeoff, what you give up is something of value. Christmas is about a huge tradeoff that I will return to in a moment.

I’ve been thinking about this matter of tradeoffs since I left Southern California last week to move to the Texas Panhandle. During that two day drive and the first couple of days after I arrived, I was focused on what I was giving up: familiarity, weather, friends, year round golf on many golf courses, a variety of avenues and opportunities to serve, and all that the greater Los Angeles area has to offer. After 32 years I may have drifted into taking it all for granted and I was miserable.

While my emotions, heart, and mind are not fully resolved yet, I am doing much better today. This is the third major move Jan and I have made in the last 47 years. And in the days, weeks, and months ahead I am confident what I will gain in this tradeoff will more than match what I gained in my previous two similar moves. Our daughter said something over the weekend that got my attention. She reminded me that after Christmas this year, unlike the last few, I won’t have to go through the emotional trauma of saying goodbye to my grandsons.

Now back to the huge tradeoff of Christmas. The Apostle Paul clearly lays it out in II Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” What a great image of God becoming a human in the birth of Jesus!

As we come to Christmas this week let’s consider the tradeoff Jesus made. He was rich and became poor so that you and I could become rich. Not rich in terms of money and things, but rich in terms of forgiveness and salvation. The baby Jesus grew and became the man Jesus. And the man Jesus fulfilled the purpose of His coming—that through His poverty you and I might become rich. “Joy to the world, the Lord has come!” Merry Christmas.

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