Youth & Young Adult Pastor Brian Pell
One of the coolest things about being a newly married couple is thinking through what sort of family traditions you want to keep and what ones you want to start on your own. Kaitlyn and I have been going through that process in our first year and a half of marriage, and it’s honestly really fun. Adding a dog and thinking about future family stuff only adds more excitement to the planning.
For example, we decided that on the night of Thanksgiving after the dinner we’ll get together and make some really good hot chocolate and watch a movie (presumably a Christmas movie), and it’s awesome. We’ve loved it the last couple years.
And, I remember growing up and having a whole bunch of Christmas traditions, because my family took that stuff seriously. Every year we’d drive to the most well-lit houses in terms of Christmas lights. We’d always go to the museum, where they had Christmas trees from around the world. We’d always go to the zoo and see the lights they put up. We always watched a certain movie the night before Christmas. We had all kinds of yearly traditions. Can anybody relate?
I think I can say this without it stinging too much. Most of us have kind of bought into the commercialization and cheesiness of Christmas as a holiday, right? I’m not going way out on a limb by saying that, I don’t think.
And, I want to say this at the get-go. Last time we chatted, we discussed Jesus’s extended family. And, what’d we say? Yeah, we said that His family was remarkably normal. He had all sorts of issues within His family tree…it’s kind of amazing. That’s how the first chapter of Matthew begins.
But, the second part of the first chapter flips the script completely. There’s nothing normal about Christmas. There’s nothing normal about it as a holiday or as a concept. Almost everything about it is weird.
So, let’s read the narrative together in Matthew 1…
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. -Matthew 1:18-25
- When you read about it
First things first…Christmas isn’t normal when you read about it. It’s just not. Let’s go back and look at a few of the details that take place here:
…before they came together she was found to be with child (v. 18) – okay, this is less weird in a modern, progressive society than it once was. To have been found with a baby prior to marriage was a very punishable offense in ancient history.
…from the Holy Spirit (v. 18) – the implication of this sentence is that God supernaturally impregnated Mary. That’s weird, and there’s no way around the fact that it’s weird. We’ve made it feel palatable because we’ve talked about it so much. But, it’s just weird. The natural order for how God designed things says that that can’t work, and it’s important we acknowledge it.
…resolved to divorce her quietly (v. 19) – we’re talking about a very patriarchal society that often bordered on outright misogyny. Joseph’s desire to handle things with Mary peacefully is a testament to his maturity frankly.
…angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream (v. 20) – this sort of thing feels easy to overlook because we’re reading the Bible, and it’s a spiritual book. So, dreams and visions don’t feel weird here. But, an angel really appearing to somebody and communicating to him in an undeniable way…that’s not an everyman’s experience. That hasn’t happened to me.
…for He will save His people from their sins (v. 21) – we’ll come back to this, but that sort of statement doesn’t fit the rhetoric surrounding the Messiah at all. The angel describes something that goes against the grain of history and scholarship of the time.
So, there’s really nothing about what we just read that can be described as normal. And, just to clarify, it’s not our job to try to convince broader culture that it is, because it’s not. For non-Christian culture to push back on our understanding makes sense, and we need not freak out about it.
Furthermore, the holiday itself isn’t normal:
Ancient history made celebrating during the winter a normal thing because the days made their switch from super dark to more sunlight (winter solstice), and, because they often had to kill their cattle due to lack of food and because that’s when they had wine stored up, celebrating wasn’t too difficult.
There grew to be a number of other celebrations for pagan gods around that time of year, and early Christianity didn’t celebrate His birth, certainly not like it focused on Easter.
In the fourth century Christianity kind of claimed that whole thing, when Pope Julius I put Christmas on the 25th. And, the Christian holiday adopted a lot of the pagan, party-type aspects of the ancient holidays.
But, the Puritans for a bunch of reasons didn’t like Christmas and tried to ban it from church activity.
It wasn’t until the 1800s that Christmas became an official, federal thing. It also wasn’t until that time that Christmas took on the family-first, more calm aspects that we understand about it today.
So, as a church, I’d like to propose a rethinking of Christmas. It’s not just a thing that happens once a year that we all agree upon and makes us feel good. We’re tapping into a lot of unique and sometimes bizarre stuff when it comes to Christmas. We’ll come back around to the rethinking of Christmas a little later.
Before that, I want to identify one other thing that makes Christmas not-normal but awesome.
- When you think about real life
Question, why is Christmastime so hard for some people? Yeah, because life has dealt them a difficult hand during this time of year, and they’re reminded of whatever ailments they’ve had to deal with.
In this room we’ve had loss of life, loss of relationships, loss of health…all sorts of bad things that’ll happen during the Christmas season that makes it difficult.
And, that’s precisely why the concept of Christmas is so abnormal.
Because life being messy and complicated and frustrating is normal. That’s the default position of a broken world. We see it all around us. Marriages fall apart. We’ve had it happen here. The economy tanks and a bunch of people lose their jobs. Cars stop working, and I can personally attest to that one (though, praise God, mine are working right now). There’s injustice in the justice system. Our world is broken, and that’s normal.
What’s not normal is that there’s a God of the universe that loves us enough to invade that jacked up space on our behalf and create a way to true love and true justice. That’s not normal. But, that’s what we’re offered through what Christmas celebrates, which is the birth of Jesus.
Naturally, we have a tendency to subvert the beauty of that truth, though. As broken people, our inclination is to take good things and to twist them, and in many ways that’s what we’ve done with Christmas.
We’ve taken the profound truth that life is hard and that Christmas is not normal, because we’ve got such a good God doing such amazing things on our behalf, and we’ve turned it into a placebo. We focus on the periphery rather than the substance.
Most of you haven’t heard me tell this story, but the best example I have is from my own engagement with Kaitlyn. You see, we woke up a couple years ago and from the get-go the day was kind of off. We had a rare, ugly day in Denver, and Kaitlyn wasn’t feeling well. But, I had everything set up already, so we drove up to Breckenridge and had a good but weird day.
We went on our own little personal sleigh ride on the outskirts of town, and I had it all set up with the driver when we’d stop and all that. Throughout the day I got super distracted with all of the details, though. I wanted to know if Kaitlyn was enjoying herself, and I wanted to make sure everything was going smoothly.
Then, we got to game time, when I was supposed to get on a knee. And, you know what happened? I blanked on everything I had planned to say to her. Totally gone. Because she’s so nice, she didn’t tell me to try again. She said yes. But, I blew that part of the engagement. Well, why did that happen? Because I forgot to focus on the stuff that mattered, I was focused on the peripheral things and missed the big thing.
I think we’ve done that with Christmas. We’ve made the Christmas season an opportunity for pseudo-catharsis, rather than an opportunity to fall more deeply in love with the God of the universe.
Well, what do I mean by that?
Whereas we’ve got a good God that loves us right where we’re at in all of our brokenness, we tend to focus on getting the decorations right in our house. Right? We’ve got this incredible story of God waging redemptive war on the normalness and brokenness of the world, but we like to focus on the Christmas movies and music and a little extra time with family.
And, of course, none of those are bad things at all. They’re good things. But, when good things take precedence over things that really matter, that have eternal value, then we need to spend some time thinking. And, I think it’s safe to say that the majority of us do this, especially those with families of their own.
Because, when we get disappointed about the speed of the Christmas season and how fast it’s all going or all the things we missed this year, we’re upset about missing the fun but banal parts of Christmastime. We’re upset we didn’t get to see that house with all the lights, or we’re sad we didn’t see a certain movie or eat certain desserts.
So, instead of wrestling with the weight of all of Christmas, we create a placebo. We focus on the things about the season that make us feel good, when something so much better is there to be had. We rob ourselves, ultimately.
- When you know Jesus
And, the only way to escape that sort of paradigm is to meet Jesus.
What do we learn about Jesus in these few short verses? Matthew’s pretty intentional here about two things:
First, she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. -Matthew 1:21
Second, His birth fulfills a prophecy regarding the Messiah from the book of Isaiah.
He will save His people from their sins – If Joseph hadn’t been so freaked about by the dream to this point, I tend to think he’d have had some questions for the angel on that point. It seems so callous because it implies that all people are sinful and that that’s the problem of the world. It also implies that the Messiah wasn’t supposed to come primarily to establish a benevolent monarchy and destroy Rome. Those ideas flew against the spirit of the age and their understanding of the Messiah.
Why even send a Savior then? Unless, of course, the angel was right. And, that sin is the problem in the world. That’s what explains all of the brokenness that we see and experience. And, Jesus’s primary mission was to come absorb that on our behalf. That’s love, and that’s Christmas.
To fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy – It mentions the name Immanuel, which means, “God with us.” That’s how Matthew starts His account of Jesus. How does Matthew end it in Matthew 28? With Jesus telling His disciples that He would always be with them, even to the end of the age.
It’s Jesus that can change our perspective on Christmas. It’s His love and His intention and His ferocity on our behalf that makes Christmas even worth celebrating. Otherwise, it often serves to remind us of heartache and the things we’re missing.
Christmas isn’t normal anymore, when you’ve met Jesus. It’s not about the little, fun details. It’s not about defending the phrase “Merry Christmas,” at all.
Christmas is about the life transformation that Jesus brings, and it starts with His willingness to come on our behalf and absorb the consequence of our sin and brokenness. He loves us that much. And, if we take one small step toward celebrating in that way, then that’s where we’ll find lasting joy and peace and freedom this Christmas.
That’s my proposition, Faith Church. I hope and pray that we’ll celebrate Christmas just a little bit, maybe 1%, different than others. That we’ll remember why this season isn’t normal, but that we’ll remember why this season is worth contemplating and celebrating at all.