The First Christmas and This Christmas

How does the first Christmas have anything to do with this Christmas?  This Christmas feels strange.  In some ways it feels strained.  How can a quaint tale of a collection of slightly random characters and a message of joy and peace make any difference today?  After all, this year we are pondering a global pandemic, political upheaval, racial tensions, social justice struggles and economic collapse.  Surely the first Christmas feels more irrelevant than ever this year, doesn’t it?

The Bible tells us what happened that first Christmas.  The stories are written in the first couple of chapters of Matthew and Luke’s documents.  All the promises written in the earlier part of the Bible, the Old Testament, seemed very long ago.  In fact, for over four hundred years, the people of Israel had lived through political upheaval, but had not heard a peep from heaven.  No prophets had stood up to declare a message from God for centuries.  Instead, foreign armies had taken turns occupying their land and forcing change upon them.

Then it felt like heaven was stirring into action.  An angel was dispatched to the hill country of Judea and then the nothing town of Nazareth.  Elderly Elizabeth was going to have a son who would grow up to be John the Baptist – a man sent by God to prepare the way for God’s entrance.  Young virgin Mary was going to have a miracle son who was truly human, but also truly divine – this was God making his entrance into our world!

Joseph also got to see the angel.  Once he found out his young bride-to-be was pregnant his world would have fallen apart.  He was a young carpenter, an unusually godly man in a godless town.  He had been betrothed (imagine an engagement bound by contract) to the one godly teenage girl who was so different from everyone else in Nazareth.  Now she was pregnant.  Every dream was shattered.  But then the angel came to Joseph and explained the pregnancy.  This child was there by God’s placement and was to be called Jesus, which means “the Lord saves,” because this Jesus was the Lord, come to save his people from their sins.

Joseph knew how the baby got there, what he was coming into the world to do, and that somehow, in this child, God was with us.  What Joseph didn’t know was how they were supposed to live life.  What would his family think?  What would Mary’s parents say?  How brutal would the gossip and judgment be from a nasty town watching the “godly” couple now morally compromised?  How would Mary cope with going into the market with nasty tongues wagging?  How would anyone in Nazareth ever trust his word in business dealings?  So many unanswered questions, but somehow, this boy Jesus was coming to save his people from their sins.

Then we read about them having to transfer to Bethlehem for the census.  They were probably relieved to get a break from the nastiness of Nazareth!  So, the young couple arrived in Bethlehem.  The guest rooms were filled, the town was busy, but the time came for Jesus to be born.  He was laid humbly in a manger and the gathering of characters for later nativities and Christmas cards began.

Some shepherds, some of the lowest people in society, were tending their flocks nearby.  All of a sudden they received a heavenly wake-up call to go and look for the new baby who was born to be the promised Saviour, the new king bringing peace into a tumultuous world.

Some foreign dignitaries, star-gazing sages from the East, arrived in Jerusalem causing quite the stir.  Once they had been directed to Bethlehem, they arrived, bringing some much needed resources for the young couple who were embarking on a greater adventure than just giving birth to the long-awaited Saviour of the world.

Not too long after, some murderous soldiers arrived intent on killing all the new boys of Bethlehem.  Paranoid King Herod would never let anyone threaten his position as king in the land.  Thankfully, the angel had warned Joseph and he had quickly taken Mary and Jesus to head south into Egypt for a while.

The first Christmas was intense.  Political turmoil as a Roman census forced occupied peoples to make difficult journeys and interrupt their businesses and normal lives.  Racial tensions as people mingled against their will.  Antagonistic authorities ready to kill innocent infants to protect their power.  It wasn’t as quaint as a Christmas card image!

The first Christmas changes everything.  Just because the story is familiar, it does not change that the facts are thrilling.  God was at work.  God was entering into our world in the form of a vulnerable little baby. 

The heavenly army of angels scared the shepherds to death, but then announced a message of life.  The poorest, most disenfranchised segment of society was being invited to see this baby Jesus for themselves.  Jesus came for everyone, including poor Jewish shepherds.

The foreigners on their camels showed up, showing that this Jesus was not just for the Jews, but for all the peoples of the Earth.  Jesus came for everyone, rich and poor, Jewish and foreign.

The evil king was thwarted in his plan to destroy Jesus.  In fact, everyone would be thwarted, until it was time for Jesus to voluntarily give himself up to death on the cross in Jerusalem thirty-odd years later.  Jesus was born in order not only to live, but also to die.  He was, as the Christmas story tells us, God with us, the Lord coming to rescue his people from their sins. 

If we will look more closely at that first Christmas, we will find that it isn’t so far removed from Christmas 2020 as we might have assumed.  In fact, in the child born that first Christmas we can find hope in our darkness, life in our world of death, and the relationship with God that we were created for in the first place.

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Real Darkness Requires Real Hope

Christmas Day gives us a break from normal life.  Maybe you associate it with family, food and presents.  The darker and heavier realities of normal life can be left for at least one day.  Enjoy another mince pie, watch some festive broadcast, and tip your hat to the ancient Christmas story.  Even that story offers a pleasant counterpoint to everyday burdens.  There is a young couple, some shepherds, a few travelling wise men, and at the centre, the baby who brings hope into the world.  Christmas tidings of joy and peace fits nicely with our shared good wishes, even if it is a little quaint.

What if Christmas in 2020 needs something more?  The darkness does feel more pressing this year, doesn’t it?  We have the global pandemic, economic uncertainty, political turmoil, racial tensions – it is a dark, dark world.  So do we jettison the quaint tales of the first Christmas and try to muster some hope from inside ourselves that can steel us for the year ahead?  Or do we look more closely at Jesus and see if he really does bring the light of genuine hope into our dark world?

Here are four reasons that the birth of Jesus can give us a hope bright enough to counter the darkness of 2020.

1. Because he reveals God.  When Jesus became one of us and was born in Bethlehem, he came to show us something important.  It wasn’t just a good example to copy, or some helpful tips for living life.  Jesus came to show us God.  We cannot accurately guess what God is like, so God came to us all wrapped up in humanity.  When we consider Jesus, we get a unique glimpse into the very character of God.  If God is a distant killjoy, or a well-meaning but impotent figure, then we are very much alone.  But if God is like Jesus, then maybe there is hope for us.  Jesus came into this world on a mission of hope, and it was a mission of revelation.

2. Because in Jesus, God identifies with us.  When Jesus joined humanity at Bethlehem, he was deliberately identifying with us.  He chose poor and insignificant parents, humble surroundings, and the darkest of times.  He came to experience life with all its challenges, uncertainties and disappointments.  He knows what it is like to live in a world wracked with disease, political turmoil, racial tension, and economic hardship.  One result of that identification, according to the Bible, is that Jesus is now able to understand and sympathise with us – he prays for us continually as we experience the new (to us) challenges of 2020 and 2021. Jesus came into this world on a mission of hope, and it was a mission of identification.

3. Because he came to give us true hope.  When Jesus came into the world, it was not just a thirty-three excursion into humanity.  He didn’t drop in only to shift into reverse and back out some time later.  Jesus is fully God and fully man – fully one … and that is forever!  Jesus did not become human temporarily.  That massively increases the offer of hope.  Why?  Because we have someone who wants to, and is able to, bring us into the relationship we need to fully experience life and love as God intended.  He didn’t come to hand over a ticket to heaven and then pull back.  He came to give us himself in marriage.  God’s great plan is for the ultimate and perfect marriage union of a rescued humanity with the only one who could rescue us: our creator.  Jesus came into this world on a mission of hope, and it was a mission to create a marriage union.

These first three points speak of three great unions – the wonderful core of the Christian message.  The first union is the beautiful relationship of God with God – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in their glorious union, are a wonderfully different God than every other god we have ever imagined.  At the heart and at the start of everything there is a loving relationship.  Amazingly, we are invited to join!  The second union is what happened that first Christmas: God and humanity joined together in the person of Jesus.  This makes possible the third union: God united to a rescued humanity by inviting us to become one with Jesus.  In union with Jesus we discover forgiveness, life, love, joy, peace, and real, powerful, life-changing hope.

4. Because Jesus came to enter and shatter the darkness.  All that I have described so far is a mission that was launched that first Christmas, and confirmed some years later on that first Easter.  Jesus came into this dark world and went to the darkest place: his death on the cross.  He chose to enter the darkness of human sin and separation from God, in order to shatter the darkness.  In its place Jesus offers the warming sunlight of God’s love to any who will accept that his life and death was intended for me.  Jesus came into this world on a mission of hope, a mission to rescue you from the darkness.

Don’t just grit your teeth and press on into 2021.  Discover the real hope that can only be found in relationship with Jesus.

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Nazarene – What a Label!

Would you carry the label, Nazarene?  For some, it is just one of the more obscure labels for Jesus or His followers.  Actually, it should prompt us to consider the One who invested the label with such profound significance.

Matthew’s infancy narrative ends with Joseph taking Mary and Jesus back to Nazareth, “so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:19-23)  Is this a low-key transition to the rest of the Gospel, or is it a fitting climax for the whole birth narrative?

Moving Back To Nazareth

Joseph’s flight to Egypt was short-lived. The tyrant Herod died shortly after the massacre in Bethlehem. So God directed Joseph back to the land, specifically to Nazareth.  Joseph knew of the challenges facing the family in the town that thought it knew Joseph and Mary all too well.

How could Joseph rebuild his business when everyone doubted his word on the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ conception? How would Mary face the comments as she returned, ‘the virgin’ with her baby boy?

Perhaps Joseph planned a fresh start in Bethlehem, but Herod’s replacement made that difficult.  Maybe Galilee made sense after all. Still, it took divine direction for Joseph to go back to Nazareth.

Joseph was directed to Israel, the land of the Jews. Then he was directed to Galilee. Still Jewish territory, but Galilee had a high number of Gentiles and was scorned by the ‘better Jews’ of Judea. This Messiah was not just for the Jews, but for the Gentiles too. In fact, by growing up in Nazareth, we will see that He was for all of us.

The Place of No Good Thing: Nazareth

Matthew mentions Nazareth three more times. After a passing reference in 4:13-16, then comes 21:11. Jesus’ triumphal entry so stirred Jerusalem that the locals asked the crowds who He was. The visiting Galilean crowds replied that this was the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth. Probably not what the locals wanted to hear!

Finally, in 26:71, Peter was in the courtyard of Annas’ house when he was identified as an accomplice of Jesus of Nazareth. Was there venom in that label? Probably, since Peter was again confronted due to his Galilean accent. To be from Nazareth was not a positive thing in Judea. In fact, it was not a good thing, even in Galilee!

Nazareth was five miles from Sepphoris, the strongest military centre in Galilee. It was on a branch of the great caravan route to Damascus. For traders, soldiers and travellers, Nazareth was just a rest stop on the way to somewhere better.

Essentially, Jesus grew up in Nowhere, Galilee. Was this the next best thing since God’s plan A (Bethlehem) had been thwarted by troublesome Herodian rulers? Not at all. God directed Joseph so that Jesus was brought up in Nazareth. This meant that the Messiah born in Bethlehem would always be called the Nazarene.

The Prophets Fulfilled

Where does the Old Testament say the Messiah will be raised in Nazareth, or be called a Nazarene? Nowhere. Interestingly, Matthew refers to the prophets, plural, when he writes of prophetic fulfillment (2:23). Perhaps several options should be combined to get a composite sense of Matthew’s subtlety here:

Jesus was, perhaps, to be considered a Nazirite (Nazir)—a chosen holy one set apart for God’s service from His mother’s womb.

Furthermore, Jesus was the Messianic ‘branch’ (Neser)—the Davidic branch of Jeremiah 23:5/33:15, who would reign in righteousness; the branch who would be a priest and a king, rebuilding the temple, as in Zechariah 6:12; the branch from Jesse’s stump anticipated in Isaiah 11:1 (part of the great royal Immanuel section).

Maybe we don’t have to choose, perhaps Matthew is making two great themes converge: the deliverer is both priest and king.  Perhaps we have come full circle back to the Immanuel prophecy of 1:22-23.

Joseph called His name Jesus in chapter 1, and by the end of chapter 2 Joseph brings Him to Nazareth so that all would call Him a Nazarene. This child, the son of

Abraham, son of David, son of God, is to be known by all people, forever, as the Nazarene!

Actually, was Matthew pointing to a location, rather than a subtlety in the name? After all, every Old Testament citation in Matthew 2 pointed to a location: Bethlehem, an allusion to ‘the nations’, Egypt, Ramah, and now, Nazareth.

Whether it is a reference to his person, or his hometown, the label is stunningly unimpressive.  This priest-king is exceedingly lowly.

A Reputation Worth Carrying?

Jesus knew what it was to be poor. He was not sheltered in an ivory tower, protected from the ‘dross of society’. He lived in the midst of it all, and He carried it as His label.

Jesus was a very common name at that time, so He needed an identifier. Who was His Dad? That was complicated. What was His job? Again, not easy. So where was He from? Nazareth became the label typically appended to His name.

We see Nazareth mentioned in Jesus’ childhood (Luke 2:51); as He called His disciples (John 1:45-46) – remember Nathanael’s sarcastic question: ‘can anything good come out of Nazareth?’; as the location of choice for launching his preaching ministry (Luke 4:16).

His subsequent visit to a synagogue in Capernaum sees Him identified as Jesus of Nazareth by an unclean spirit, who also acknowledges that He is the Holy One of God. Jesus accepts the label, but silences the spirit once His heavenly identity is declared (Mark 1:24-25; Luke 4:34-35).

As Jesus headed toward Jerusalem, blind Bartimaeus recognizes the Nazareth label (Mark 10:47; Luke 18:37-38); then it is used in His arrest, (John 18:5); during Jesus’ trial it is used disparagingly of Peter (see also Mark 14:67); and even in His death, Pilate’s inscription reads, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”

After His resurrection the two disconsolate disciples on the road to Emmaus refer to Jesus as being ‘of Nazareth’ (Luke 24:19). Fair enough, their hopes had been dashed.

But even the angel in the tomb used the label! Surely an angel sent from God could come up with something better!? (Mark 16:6)

Even after His ascension Jesus continues to bear the lowly label ‘of Nazareth.’ Peter’s Pentecost sermon climaxes with Jesus as Lord and Christ, but it launches with Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 2:22).

The lame man is healed, not in the name of the risen and ascended Christ, but in the name of Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 3:6; 4:10). Stephen’s accusers use the label (Acts 6:14). Peter tells Gentiles that God anointed and was with the Nazarene (Acts 10:38).

Then we discover that Jesus used the label of Himself when He appeared to Paul at His conversion (Acts 22:8)! This had been the name opposed by Paul in his days of Christian persecution (Acts 26:9), and indeed even Jesus’ followers bore the disparaging label (Acts 24:5).

Conclusion

God was with this Jesus of Nazareth. And in His willingness to carry this label in ministry up north and down south, in His arrest, His crucifixion, His resurrection and even in His ascension, this Jesus of Nazareth was most assuredly ‘with us.’

Immanuel, God with us. Not just near us, in some nice palace somewhere. But with us, like ‘in Nazareth’ with us. Jesus of Nowhere, Galilee. He came to be with us, so that He could be for us. And He is forever with us, for He still carries the lowliest of labels. It was all part of God’s plan, that He should be called a Nazarene.

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Adapted from Pleased to Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation, by Peter Mead (Christian Focus, September 2014).  To get a copy of the book, please click here if you are in the UK, and click here if you are in the USA. [Used with permission from Christian Focus.]

Don’t Lose Jesus at Christmas

If this were a normal year, churches and some schools would be busy preparing for the annual nativity play. Old curtains tied with rope, shiny cardboard crowns, gold-wrapped empty boxes and white sheets with tinsel. If this were a normal year, some groups would be keeping it simple, while others would be driving the event to a whole new level. If this were a normal year, some groups would see guests filing into their seats, only to realize behind the stage that Jessica forgot to bring her doll to be Jesus. This is no normal year.

What happens if you lose Jesus? In a normal year it would mean a parent driving home like he was being chased by the Police (hoping he doesn’t get chased by the Police). This is no normal year. So what does it mean if you lose Jesus, not just from a nativity play, but from Christianity itself?

Some preachers preach with Jesus eerily absent. Their sermons tend to drift towards moral lectures and the policing of church and society. Nobody in the world really cares what we think of its failures, and to be honest, we in the church don’t find this kind of preaching that helpful either.

Some evangelists lose sight of Jesus, too. Their presentations end up offering some sort of moral-change gospel – which is no gospel at all. You have been bad, judgment is coming, God can help you fix yourself . . . uh? The Gospel?

Some Christians accidentally drop Jesus as well. Our personal spirituality gets marked by a distant God, and we then become very “fallen human” again. Everything becomes about me. I must try harder, be more disciplined, behavioural in my focus. Bible reading will tend to focus on “walk worthy,” but my eyes will miss the truths underlying these exhortations.

In John 5, Jesus rebukes the religious elite for being diligent Bible men but at the same time, for ignoring him. They knew their Hebrew Bibles, but they missed how God revealed himself throughout those sacred books. They missed how his call to them was not primarily behavioural, but a call to faith – trusting not only the promises, but also the Promiser who walked amongst them on so many occasions. They had read their Bibles with self-glorifying lenses in their reading spectacles and so had lost sight of the person revealed throughout. Lose him and the relationship becomes a religion.

When we lose Jesus from Christianity, we lose any real sense of relationship with God. We become self-glorifying and we become vigilantes policing those around us. There may be no nativity play to worry about this year, but think about the bigger danger – the danger that we drift from a Christ-at-the-centre Christianity in our personal spirituality, in our evangelism, in our preaching.

Don’t Preach a Christmassy Christmas

It is easy to preach Christmas in a Christmassy way. You know, quaint and familiar cliches that smell a lot like an other-worldly fairy tale. It will have beautiful scenes and an eclectic array of two-dimensional characters. And our listeners will guess where the message is going: kindness to others, unity amidst division, celestial sentiments of goodwill and a few references to eating too much.

The first Christmas was no fairy tale. So we should not preach Christmas to satisfy the nostalgic yearnings of a weary public. Nor should we sprint past the stable to get to a post-Christmas presentation of the Gospel in order to satisfy the more robust preaching critics from pew four.

The birth of Jesus occurred in a context of great confusion and tension. Jesus entered this world to change things. And if we can enter that world, we might better grasp the hope for our world today.

Just think of all that swirled for the characters that first Christmas:

The shepherds were social outcasts who received one of the greatest visions in human history. They were stunned. And they needed the angel to stir them to leave their sheep and dare to follow up on the heavenly announcement. If the angel hadn’t deliberately mentioned the manger, and therefore, the poor surroundings of the newborn king, they would have probably stayed in the fields impressed by their vision.

The Magi were trusting in obscure information passed down to them and what they saw in the night sky. Prophecies from foreign documents, long and dangerous travel, no guarantee of fruit from their journey. We can only imagine how bizarre it must have seemed to them (as well as how bizarre they felt as they arrived at their destination!)

Mary and Joseph got their life-changing information from Gabriel – it was truly momentous news, but so much was left unsaid. What would they say to others? How would they explain this? Would they even be able to live in their home town? How would family react? Who would trust Joseph’s word in business now? Lots of questions about the little stuff of real life.

But as they all lived that first Christmas, God did give them what they needed. They heard or discovered God’s kindness, God’s faithfulness, God’s timing, God’s plan to deliver people from their sins, even what God would look like if he came in human flesh to be with us!

As we preach Christmas this Christmas, let’s not sound too Christmassy. Instead, let’s invite people back into that world, so that they can discover how Jesus came into our world, for real people, with real issues, real fears, real doubts, and real questions. Let’s stand next to an unnamed shepherd or Joseph, not knowing what the next years will bring, but knowing that God has cared enough to do something about it! Life was complex before 2020. They didn’t used to live two-dimensional cartoon lives. Preach the real Christmas, and give real hope, this Christmas.

Home for Christmas?

There is something poignant and powerful about the word “home” at Christmas. Maybe this year it will be even more so. With government imposed lockdowns and this year’s coronavirus making life complicated, we may not be able to be home for Christmas. Or we may not be able to be together, at home, for Christmas. For some this is true every year – there are empty places at Christmas.

The Christmas story as it is told usually includes some reference to the wonder of God the Son leaving his heavenly home to come down to earth. His welcome? Not a stunning palace and well dressed attendants. No, humble shepherds, gathered around an animal feeding trough. There wasn’t even place in the inn, so it all happened in a lowly stable.

At the risk of stomping on your nativity set, can I point out that reality may be even better than folklore? What actually happened is slightly different than what we tend to hear each year. Luke 2 tells us that Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

What was it really like? The “inn” was not a reference to a public inn as in the story of the Good Samaritan, an Israeli motel offering rough accommodation for traveling Jews. Rather the word used by Luke refers to the guest room attached to the back or the top of a single room family home. Joseph, with his family heritage would have received a welcome in the little city of David. And we do a disservice to Middle Eastern folks if we think young pregnant Mary wouldn’t have been looked after.

They didn’t get the guest room, because other visitors were already there. Instead they were probably brought into the single room residence of this humble family in Bethlehem. At the front end of the room there would have been a drop down to the area where the animals would be kept at night (for the animal’s security and for their central heating benefits). The sheep would have a wooden or stone manger, the family cow and the donkey would eat from the trough cut into the floor at the end of the human living space. It isn’t probably what we would choose, but it has a certain charm, nonetheless.

This was typical of the homes then, and culturally this would have been the situation. Perhaps not quite the quaint stable, but what a gripping image! The Messiah wasn’t born in a palace, but in a humble home.

Incidentally, the reference to the manger would have been important in the message of the angels to motivate the shepherds to come for their visit. After all, why would they leave their fields to go looking for a baby with a heavenly fanfare announcing his birth? Maybe if they knew he would be in a humble home like their own? Furthermore, if he was actually born in a stable, the shepherds would have insisted on a transfer to their humble homes – again, Middle Eastern hospitality! The young family didn’t even get the guest room, but the special little one came in the family home, with the women of the home helping Mary, then the men coming in to gaze in wonder at the new boy.

Maybe this is a good year to make something of the stable correction. Maybe this year we should help people to understand that the stable image may be humble, but it probably isn’t accurate. And actually, the living room of a poor peasant family is just as humble. We may not be able to gather people together in our homes this Christmas, but we know that Jesus would come into a home like ours. He was born into a more humble home that first Christmas!

Christ by highest heav’n adored, Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come, Offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

Christmas is a time when our thoughts turn toward home. What a truly glorious thought, that Christ left his home to come and be born in a humble human home. Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel. Our God, with us!

Preaching Christmas at Christmas

Even though 2020 is a unique year, Christmas is still an amazing opportunity to preach to people who normally don’t come to church. Maybe you are meeting, or maybe you are preaching online. But how do you make the most of preaching Christmas at Christmas?

1. Pray lots – there is a massive spiritual battle going on and the enemy wants to keep people looking at anything except the truth of the gospel. As Christmas approaches, he will also try to keep preachers distracted from the wonder of the gospel too. Pray lots, and keep your eyes on Christ!

2. Preach fact – it may seem like a Christmas card cartoon myth, but it is not. Luke launched his gospel with a declaration of the trustworthiness of his message. Let’s follow his lead. Look for any opportunity to underline that the Christmas story actually, literally, historically, physically happened.

3. Correct carefully – in your quest for historical truth, be careful not to over-correct every detail. A critical spirit never communicates well. Jesus wasn’t born in a cattle shed, Mary was not transitioning to hard labour as she arrived in Bethlehem, and the Magi could well have arrived that night after all. Be careful with correcting long-held beliefs, and be careful with your tone when you do correct.

4. Celebrate sensitively – this season comes with its own hype, and we may be tempted to breathe a sigh of nostalgic familiarity as we celebrate another Christmas. But remember that Christmas is bittersweet for many people. There are empty chairs at the table, and Christmas tends to underline the deep ache. Take a moment in your message, or in a prayer, to recognize the difficulties as well as the joys of the season.

5. Proclaim the good news – Christmas is not primarily about sentimentality and pleas for peace. Primarily, it is vertical and not just horizontal. Jesus came into this world to bring us back to God. Don’t miss the moment and just preach a nice message. Be sure to proclaim the best news!

6. Undermine assumptions – People who don’t normally come to church have assumptions (actually, many who do come to church regularly still have some of them too!) This is a great opportunity to undermine some of these assumptions. There is a historical reality to the Incarnation. God’s character is very different than people tend to assume. People think they know what God is like, and what God wants from them. Christmas is a great opportunity to move people from “malevolent majesty” notions of God, to the manger where God’s humility bursts onto our scene with the humble cries of a newborn.

7. Worship personally – as I mentioned the other day, don’t lose the wonder of this season. If you don’t feel it, why will your listeners? Spend some time with God. Let him warm your heart up to the season again. Then go preach Christmas this Christmas!

Christmas Expectations

Christmas is a strange time of year. And this year, Christmas will feel strange too. Maybe you are meeting. Maybe you are just meeting online. Maybe you are meeting but can’t sing. Whether you are preaching to a live congregation, or the lens of a camera, it is time to preach the Christmas message!

1. Listeners have some expectations of the message that should be met.  People are coming (or watching) with some expectations of Christmas. They expect to hear the story of Christmas in some form. They expect to hear references to Christians celebrating Christmas. They may well be expecting some personal warmth, and maybe this year especially, some reassurance that not everything has changed.

2. Listeners have some expectations of the message that should be shattered.  They may well expect the message to be antiquated, almost fairy-tale like and safe.  What an opportunity for your listeners to be surprised that the Bible is actually interesting, and profoundly relevant, and disarmingly engaging. Don’t just comfort them with nostalgic Christmas catchphrases. Introduce every listener to a heightened sense that God intended Christmas to be uniquely relevant to them.

Let’s pray for one another as we preach the Christmas message this month!

Christmas Wonder

One of the greatest dangers we face in ministry is losing the wonder of what we speak about. The demands of ministry are always high, and this year, maybe even higher. There are the expectations of people, the burden of creativity (only two pairs of Gospel chapters to preach from!), the pastoral concerns that don’t lessen in the dark days of December, extra responsibilities and expectations at home, and so on. How easy it is to lose the wonder of Christmas!

I don’t want to try to prescribe how to keep the wonder of it all this Christmas. I just want to suggest that we do. What will it take? Time with family – proper time? Extra guarded time alone with God? Is there music that triggers your awe at the Incarnation? Or a good book? Whatever it takes.

As we head into this unusual Christmas season, there are definitely pressures building on us. Let’s look to be captured by the grace of God as he chose to step into our messy world. Let’s look to be gripped by the hope held out in the Christmas story for a dark hurting world full of sinners – sinners ruled by sinners, threatened by death, worried about issues local and global (true then as it is true now!) Let’s look to be stirred afresh by the history-hinge of the Incarnation.

Ponder the first Christmas in all its gritty reality. Ponder the Incarnation in all its theological wonder. Ponder the questions raised for the first characters as they watched it unfold. Ponder the answers given to any willing to probe the truths of biblical revelation. Ponder the journey Jesus took from Bethlehem to the Cross. Ponder the everlasting nature of Christ taking on flesh. Ponder the hope that we have of seeing him one day for ourselves. Ponder. Ignite the wonder. Whatever it takes.