Below is the manuscript from my message at our Christmas Eve communion service this evening.
What do you think about when you hear the word “Christmas?” What are your thoughts about Christmas? What memories shape your thinking about Christmas and what do you think about those memories? When I think about Christmas,
- I think about big dinners: you couldn’t grow up in the home I grew up in and not think about meals and food (mom always made 30-50 kinds of Christmas treats every year)
- I think about anticipation (doesn’t every kid?) — and I invariably think about a couple of years when I received very anticipated gifts and one year when I almost had everything taken away (that’s another story for another day).
- I think about children — our children, who were both born in December and made Christmas a double joy, especially the years they were born.
- I think about marriage and sons-in-law (especially this year, when we joyfully have a son in the family for the first time).
- I think about sorrows — Raye Jeanne’s mother died shortly before Christmas and mine shortly after Christmas a few years later. We have also experienced the death of other family members (both biological and spiritual) and Christmas often is a time to remember and grieve.
- I think about worship — for 30 years at GBC and for many years before, Christmas has always meant Christmas Eve and Christmas day worship services, and that’s been good for my heart.
- I think about fellowship — fellowship at church and fellowship in the home.
Thoughts of Christmas are probably similar for most of us: there is a mixture of joyful and hard memories. So how will you respond to Christmas? How will you think about it and what will you do at Christmas? The story of the first Christmas story gives us some examples of what to do at Christmas (and what not to do). Remember the story from Luke 2? We began looking at it on Sunday and saw that in Luke’s account of Christ’s birth, there is a progression of the revelation of Christ in three stages (first two were Sunday):
- The Incident: a Child is Born (vv. 1-7)
This is just the basic story and God’s sovereign weaving of many different components together to accomplish His purposes: international events, Israel’s history, and the relationship of Joseph and Mary all were worked together to accomplish God’s eternal plan of the incarnation to redeem sinners from their sin and to Him. It is a remarkable story told in a most understated way.
- The Interpretation: the Child is the Lord of Glory (vv. 8-14)
The angel declared to the shepherds (the most unlikely of recipients of this announcement) the advent of God on earth in the person of Jesus — a Savior, Christ (Messiah and King), and the sovereign Lord. Moreover, since there was no one else to affirm the glory of Christ, Heaven burst open, first with one angel and then an army of angels to declare the provision and availability of peace to all men. Heaven has told us what we should think about the birth of this Child.
But what should we do with the birth of this Child? How should we respond to His coming? Is there something that can be done and should be done in response to His coming?
The Imperative: Worship the Child (vv. 15-20)
When we say, “worship the child,” we are recognizing there are a variety of ways of worshipping Him. And several are noted in this section.
- Believe Christ (vv. 15-16)
The shepherds were terrified when first the angel and then the heavenly army of angels appeared to them. But they were told not to be afraid, and they obeyed and were not afraid. Notice that they then repeatedly were saying, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem…” As soon as the angels left, they had one thought and they were voicing it to each other over and over — “we have to go…”
There was a large logistical issue to handle — who would watch the sheep? — but while we don’t know how they took care of the sheep, we know that did not deter them and they left immediately and came in haste. They brought no gifts (they were poor and had no opportunity to find a gift); they had to see the One who would be their Savior. And when they arrived,
…they found the Savior. That was the climax of their experience and the peak moment of their stories. They found that the words of the angel…were not misleading. They discovered that God’s communications were not lies. God’s Son had been born. The Savior had come. He was there for all who would leave what they were doing and come to Him. [Boice, Christ of Christmas, p. 79.]
In a word, they believed the gospel message — and we know that they believed the gospel because of what they did next: the told the gospel message themselves (v. 17). When they had seen this, they made known… They saw, believed, and spoke.
The first Christmas story is filled with people who were close to Christ but did not believe in Christ — the innkeeper (?), Herod, the religious leaders, and Nazareth’s citizens. But the despised shepherds heard and immediately acted on what they heard and believed. Whatever other good things Christmas (the advent of God to earth in the God-Man) should produce in us, it should produce faith in Jesus Christ; it should lead us to believe that we are sinners and He is a Savior to redeem us from our sin and bring us to Him in fellowship. That’s the most basic Christmas message and if you don’t believe yet, I urge you to begin believing tonight. Nothing is more appropriate on Christmas.
- Declare Christ (vv. 17, 20)
The angels were the first evangelists at Christmas. But the shepherds were a close second. As soon as they heard and believed the message of Christ, they became evangelists for Christ. Having believed in Christ, they could not be restrained from telling others. They made known the truth about Christ.
Do you also notice what they were making known? They were making known the statement… That statement is what the angel declared in v. 11 and then the angels corporately declared in v. 14. They were telling the basics of the gospel. While it would be hard to tell these statements without also telling their experience with the angels, the angelic visitation is clearly secondary. They only want to talk about one thing — the gospel and the Savior. Verse 20 affirms the same thing: they were glorifying and praising God — and their praise was for what they saw when they arrived in Bethlehem; what they saw was exactly what the angel said they would see, and they were continually telling that to whoever would listen to them.
Isn’t it interesting that those who were among the most despised by the world were also the first to be used by God to declare the truth of Christ to those who did not yet believe? Here is an encouragement to us — whatever else we do at Christmas, this is a season to talk about Christ. We don’t need to be particularly educated (the shepherds weren’t), or socially remarkable (the shepherds weren’t); we just need to know the Savior and the basics of His gospel and tell whoever comes across our path about Him. Declare Him.
There is a sober caution here also — notice v. 18 — all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. The word “wonder” indicates “amazement” or “astonishment.” It’s the “Wow” response to a story. It’s the “that’s amazing…that’s cool” response. While we need to be careful about not inferring too much from things that are not said in Scripture, there is no indication that these hearers actually acted on the story. There is no account of anyone else visiting the stable and no one else joins the shepherds to tell their story. It also seems clear that these probably did not believe because whenever this word “wonder” (or “amazed”) is used in the gospels about the crowds of people, it never clearly indicates that they believe. And most often, it is followed by clear rejections of Christ. Consider just one typical example: Luke 11:14 — Jesus casts out a demon, and the crowds are “amazed.” Then the next verse says, “But some of them said, ‘He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of demons…’” They are amazed, and they still reject Christ. Be warned: it’s not enough to celebrate “Christmas.” You must believe Christ.
- Worship Christ
Here is the final (most important) response to Christmas. The word “worship” can be somewhat nebulous. And there are several different ways the word is used. Here, as I use the word, I am thinking of personal, private worship. I’m thinking about the longings and desires of our own hearts. I’m thinking about how we process the events of our lives and what we want inwardly more than anything else.
I get that from two words about Mary’s response: she treasured by pondering. Now as we come to this verse, remember her circumstances. She had been told by an angel that she would become pregnant, but there was no other angelic instruction for her (though Zecharias and Elizabeth likely helped her prepare). Preparing for motherhood is a daunting task in itself, but think of the difficulty of her attempts to prepare for being the mother of the Lord of Glory and hearing the whispers of infidelity behind her back. Add to that her attempts to prepare for marriage and motherhood being disrupted by the census demand of Caesar and her unscheduled trip to Bethlehem. And then add all the difficulties of having a baby alone in an unfamiliar town, in a stable, and without friends or family to help. Then when someone shows up it is the shepherds — again, not the most cherished people in Israel. If anyone was a candidate for an assessment of PTSD or depression, it was Mary.
How will she process and think on these things? She treasured them. The word is only used two other times in the NT; in those places it has been translated as “preserved” and “kept safe” (Mt. 9:17; Mk. 6:20). Mary is not getting rid of her difficult memories; she is holding onto them and preserving them to make sure she remembers them. But she is not remembering them in anxiety or anger. She is remembering them with delight and joy. Luke tells us that she was pondering them. That means that she was placing the memories and ideas together and comparing them. She is considering all the details of the story and seeing how they fit together.
She is attempting to see the events through godly eye-glasses and consider what God might be doing in the midst of these memories. And the words “treasured” and “pondering” are both present tense, which means that she was repeatedly going over all these events in her mind, considering God’s grace to her through what He was doing.
Nothing that happened — the unusual, the unexpected, the hard and the joyful (and her story had all those components) — was beyond the hand of God. In fact, it had all been planned and prepared by God. It was happening exactly according to His plan. And she was thinking of her circumstance in just that way. And that was producing joy for her.
Mary provides an example of Christian and godly remembering for us. There are memories that are joyful and memories that are hard. How will you remember the hard ones (including hard Christmas memories) so they become a treasure and a pleasure? You will do well to do what Mary did — remember God in the circumstances. There is nothing in your life that is beyond the ability of God; there is nothing in your life that is apart from the purpose and plan of God. Your circumstances have not thwarted His plan; they are part of His plan. (Your sin is not decreed by Him; it is your attempt to rebel against Him. But He even uses your sin to accomplish His plan.)
This Christmas — every Christmas and every day — we do well to consider our lives and see the handiwork of God in constructing an elaborate life that will be satisfying to us and glorifying to Him. How will you respond to Christmas? We do well to follow the imperatives of this story by believing, declaring, and worshipping the Christ Child, the eternal God-Man, the Lord of Glory?