I can’t be the only person who gets annually bothered by how early Christmas décor is placed in some public places like shopping malls and department stores. After all, though I love Christmas time, I have found myself on occasion feeling like the Thanksgiving turkeys haven’t even lost their “oven glow” before sprigs of holly were going up over the doors in the local shopping mall! I don’t think it is a complete coincidence that Christmas in America has become filled with a holiday spirit that seems so well suited to the marketplace…
I wonder: “Have you noticed how people celebrate Christmas these days?”
Thinking about it, it appears not everyone does it the same way. It seems…
Some people celebrate by shopping. That’s the truth! They live for the opportunity to scan the malls, pick through the piles of goods, and fight their way forward with bargains. They supposedly do it for the gifts they give and the ones they love – but their happiest moments don’t seem to be beside the tree on Christmas morning, but in the hustle, bustle and even the tussle of the shopping. Increasingly, there is quantitative evidence that some American “check out” counters on “Black Friday” appear in store security cameras to imitate “Federation Wrestling smack-down” bouts. If you love to shop for everything from air guns to cheese wedges, there is no better season in our beloved western culture than the Christmas season to get a new sense of holiday “joy”.
Some people seem to celebrate family more than anything else at this time of year. Honestly, if you listen to some talk, they don’t seem to have much “Jesus” in the season. Their excitement sounds more like it is an opportunity to see the children and grandchildren packed into their house, trying to discern the true ingredients of a Christmas fruitcake. Maybe it was the movies that made us think this was what Christmas truly was – a time for Bob Cratchett to come home with Tiny Tim on his shoulder and watch the little ones spying the pot for the Christmas pudding.
The “family Christmas” folks love the thought of people getting together around a sumptuous meal set by a well-ornamented tree. They can almost smell the fire in the fireplace and hear the crackle of the logs. In their mind’s eye, children are laughing with delight, playing with that little toy that captivates them. That is their Christmas dream, a bit of “Currier and Ives meets a Hollywood dream sequence.” Ask anyone in the Smith extended family, and you will hear that it seldom actually looks anything close to that, but it is the dream nevertheless. Christmas seems to offer the unwritten expectation for the family to gather and spend time together, teens willing or not. Jesus may not get invited, but old uncle Harry surely will.
Some people celebrate tradition. Sappy people (like me) watch the same Christmas specials, year after year, as if Marley might show up this year in a better mood, or the Grinch’s heart might not grow fast enough for him to save the sleigh of stolen goods from utter destruction. We KNOW what the stories are, so why do we watch them? The short answer is this: we like the nostalgic feeling of a traditional holiday. After all, much of life is swiftly changing. Everyday my computer tells me to update to Windows 10, because it is so much better than the version I paid them for already. I resist. I don’t like change, and I don’t trust companies that keep pushing out products only to update them the next month. I like the familiar, and so I like the traditions.
I love the smell of a Christmas tree. I like to see lights hung outside as I drive through our festive neighborhoods. I look forward to the jingle of the bells and smell of the cookies. People like me love the warmth of each of our Christmas traditions.
I have also noticed that some people don’t seem to celebrate Christmas much at all; it is more like they “endure” it. Not long ago I read:
“Harried by the holiday, a woman stepped onto an elevator filled with shoppers as she struggled to hold both her bags and her children and sighed, “I think the one that started this whole Christmas thing should be found and shot!” A few snickered, but in the quietness someone from the back of the elevator exclaimed, “No worry, ma’am – they already crucified Him long ago!”
With the idea of “celebration” in mind, let me ask another question: “What SHOULD the celebration be like for Christmas when we think about it from God’s Word?”
Key Principle: Biblically speaking, Christmas Day looked like “Thanksgiving Day”.
Pilgrim hats and turkey with stuffing aside, the original celebration of God’s gift of Messiah was met (by those who knew) by a celebration filled with thankfulness! It was neither solemn, nor tradition-laden. When God sent His Son to put on human skin, the world was interrupted by an invasion from the Heavens – and those who recognized the event couldn’t help but cry out words and actions of thanksgiving.
God promised the arrival long before the Savior’s coming to be sure, as the prophets often unfolded secrets of the story – but only in small amounts of information at a time. His actual arrival was like the “BIG REVEAL” of an HGTV makeover show, as the couple stands in front of their new home, complete with tears and deep words of thanks.
First, the Celebration recalled Promises.
Scan the Bible, and you will see the promises were abundant, but offered in bits and pieces that needed to be assembled to make the whole story clear:
From one of the earliest stories of mankind, the record of the “Fall of Man” as revealed to Moses offered the first promise of a Savior from the Garden of Eden. God declared the “Promised One” would come as a man to deal with Satan’s successful enlistment of Adam and Eve in mutiny against God. In Genesis 3:15 we can see the promise, given amidst God’s cursing of the serpent. He said:
Genesis 3:15 “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
The “seed of a woman” would be wounded by the enemy, but crush his head. Man may be in league with the enemy of God for the moment, but the Promised Ruler would one day decisively change the whole battle. Notice carefully that the MEANS of arrival was MIRACULOUS SEED was “of the woman”, not the more customary reference to the male contribution to a child’s formation in the womb. This Promised One was not from man, but supplied to the woman by God alone. Mary needed no man for the Spirit was completely capable to supply the needed DNA material. God related that Messiah would have a specific kind of mother – one who was a virgin at the time of the conception: Isaiah 7:14 “He would be born of a virgin.” The miraculous means was certainly something to celebrate!
Continue to scan the books of the Hebrew prophets and you will find many references to that Promised One. The reference to the PLACE where Messiah would be born – a tiny village in an obscure province – was proclaimed by Micah the Judean prophet:
Micah 5:2 records: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Elsewhere, God stated that Messiah would work in a specific geographic area away from His birth place:
Isaiah 9:1 promised: “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan— 2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned…6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…7 …The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this…” Messiah, though born in Bethlehem, was assigned to live and work in the region of the Galilee, where Zebulun and Naphtali were allotted their ancestral tribal lands. These promises told of the Messiah’s birthplace AND His workplace. The coming of the God-man to these tiny Jewish towns and villages was certainly a cause for celebration!
Search even further, you will find God specified the LINEAGE from which Messiah would come. Moses reminded us of a time shortly after Abraham made clear to God he was willing to give up Isaac and obey even God’s most difficult commands, that God made clear through Isaac and Jacob the Rescuer of mankind would spring forth. Again from the words of Moses we read:
Genesis 22:18 “…and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” That Messiah was longed for among Jewish women, looked for by Jewish leaders of old and recognized within the people of God as coming from their own tribes of the Jewish people is no secret at all.
In fact, the ASSIGNMENT of the Promised One was clearly related, in detail, by prophets who foretold of Messiah’s innocent life and violent death. One need only read from the prophet Isaiah to see a graphic depiction in Isaiah 53:
Isaiah 53:5 “But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities… 7 …He was led like a lamb to the slaughter…8 …He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people He was punished. 9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth. 10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes His life an offering for sin, He will see His offspring and prolong His days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in His hand…12 …Therefore I will give Him a portion among the great, and He will divide the spoils with the strong, because He poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
With remarkable specificity, Messiah was prophesied to come and be crushed because of the sin of others. He was to be killed in the place of the wicked, but entombed in the place of the rich. He was to be an offering for sin, but to be rewarded after His own sacrifice with great honor. He was to be counted as a criminal, but celebrated as a victor.
Surely His arrival was something to celebrate – because it kept exacting promises long made!
There are literally dozens more of clear statements like these. The promises concerning Messiah can be easily traced – but not all in one passage at one time. God expected His people to search and learn His Word, and take it seriously – but He made no attempt to simplify it to bullet points. The point is this: If we want to follow God, we must take His Word seriously and carefully put the whole of it together, or we will miss the most important parts of the story. Lazy believers miss out. The story must be COMBINED and CONSUMED. We need to spend TIME on the whole of what God said to get a clear picture.
Second, the Celebration touched people:
If we took a moment to scan the Biblical account of the long-awaited coming of the Savior in Luke’s narrative, we would see a cast of characters that were each mentioned (in addition to Mary at the birth). Luke dutifully reported each of their thankful responses to the revelation that Messiah was finally coming to the world:
Elizabeth (1:41-43) – representing the longing women of the Jewish world
Since the promises were given and made known through Moses, women began looking toward one that would be used by God to meet the need. One day, that promise came true in Mary. As she journeyed to the home of her cousin relative, Elizabeth offered words of thanks to God:
Luke 1:39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
Luke made careful note of Elizabeth’s thanksgiving for Mary’s visit, for the visitor in Mary’s womb, and the clear greeting of this young pregnant girl as the “mother of my Lord!” There was no ambiguity of the arrival, nor of her desire to give thanks! God kept His promise in this young woman of Nazareth, and Elizabeth made that clear. God is as good as His Word – and that is worth the giving of thanks!
Baby John the Prenatal Prophet (1:44) – representing all unconscious creation
Into that same scene we are reminded that John, not yet born, also had a reaction to the arrival of Jesus:
Luke 1:44 [Elizabeth exclaimed]: “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.”
Though mom gave the meaning, the baby did the flipping. This was a cartwheel of joy by a prophet under construction! God chose to meet man’s sin need – and surely that was worth thanksgiving!
Zechariah (1:17,68,72) – representing those who needed to be convinced
It is easier to look back and comment on another’s response than it would have been to BE the person in the story. Luke told us of those who believed and gave thanks, but also of those who found it hard to do without some additional learning. Not everyone seems ready to encounter God when He knocks on their heart. The angel Gabriel told Zechariah:
Luke 1:17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
But Zech didn’t immediately believe. Because of that disregard for the Word of the Lord, the Lord took his voice for a time. When God’s people don’t give thanks to God for His goodness, they always lose their voice for a time. After he learned his lesson inside, months later he saw the baby born and wrote down the name of the child as he was told by Gabriel. The simple scribble was an expression of late obedience. Luke recorded:
Luke 1:67 [Then] His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: 68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them…72 to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant…”
Zech clearly understood the identity of the coming of his son, as well as the work of announcing another child – that of Messiah. This was a celebration of one who needed extra time to truly believe, but it was another moment of thanks in the story. Thankfulness for God’s patience toward those of us who are slow of heart is also included in the story. We may get to the party late, but with time we can learn to say thank you as well!
Angels (2:10) – representing the long awaiting host of God
The story included more than people – it included the Heavens:
Luke 2:10 says: “But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
The Heavenly armies were not poised above the Bethlehem hills to simply bring hot hits from the Heaven Opera Company – they had guard duty that night! Yet, they knew it was an occasion to celebrate. It was a time for Heaven to teach a song that generations would sing – for this invasion of God should be remembered with praise!
Shepherds (2:20) – representing the non-theologian lowly but caring
The lowly were a part of the party as well. Reading from Luke 2:20:
The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
What the angels sang the shepherds hummed – all the way to the village! They testified to what they saw and heart – but they did it with the ring of celebration, praise and awe. Even those the world discounts can learn the song of the Almighty. God didn’t make the important people and forget the lowly – He is Father of all. A thankful response poured from those who felt undeserving, but knew they were the selected messengers of God.
Simeon (2:28) – representing anxious believing Israel
The thankful story poured out, not only on the day of His arrival, but on Jesus’ first arrival at the Temple, eight days later. Arriving to name the child at His circumcision, an old man took the child from Mary’s arms:
Luke 2:28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: 29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”
An old man saw God’s promise realized – the promise he awaited for years and his people awaited for centuries. The right response was thanks because God keeps His personal commitments – and Simeon had one from the Creator. How could he do anything but thank God for His faithfulness?
Consider what we have heard: God touched those who believed His promises. He changed those who didn’t believe at first, but later saw them come true! He taught songs to the lowly from the host of Heaven and confirmed truth outwardly that He had promised in an old man’s heart. It is true, the celebration recalled promises. It is also true the celebration touched lives. It is worth remembering one more thing as we come to the Christmas season this year…
The celebration taught people critical lessons that helped them trust God more.
Inside Luke’s assortment of characters are some women who needed to experience God’s work and learn of His character in a profound way. God snatched away their plans for life and gave them an experience they could not have anticipated. He did it by derailing and interrupting. Why was it important to recall their stories in the text?
Perhaps there is a point we need to remember. God may do His best work in us by disrupting and re-directing our steps…
Consider two women who had no idea what God had planned when they started life’s journey. Neither knew their names would be so well remembered in the generations to follow. Neither could imagine how many times their faces would be imagined by painters, sculptors and cutters of stained glass. These women humbled and used by God in the story – and they learned how to join in the CELEBRATION even when God detoured their plans.
Mary learned to recognize the character of God in a new way (Luke 1:48-56).
Consider what Luke 1 tells of Mary’s lesson, given in song. To understand the song, we need to set it in the context of the narrative…Think of Luke 1 as a six-part story:
• First, there was a prologue: Luke 1:1-4 explained how Luke set out on the quest to write this volume, lining up both his purpose and the procedures he used.
• Second, in Luke 1:5-7 the parents of John the Baptizer were introduced with their background information.
• Third, Luke 1:8-25 explained the prophetic announcement of John’s coming by Gabriel, and Zacharias’ silent months.
• Fourth, Luke 1:26-38 replayed the story of Gabriel and Mary – with the prophetic announcement of Messiah’s conception.
• Fifth, Luke 1:39-56 offered the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, together with the exclamations of “The Magnificat” – where we are going to look in just a moment.
• Sixth and finally, Luke 1:57-80 closed the chapter with the story of John’s birth and naming, when Zacharias’ mouth opened in praise.
Go back for a moment to Luke 1:39-56 records the journey of Mary to Elizabeth, and the fabulous “Magnificat” of Mary. Look what she learned about God…
Luke 1:46 And Mary said: “My soul exalts the Lord, 47 And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. 48 “For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. 49 “For the Mighty One has done great things for me; And holy is His name. 50 “And His mercy is upon generation after generation Toward those who fear Him. 51 “He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. 52 “He has brought down rulers from their thrones, And has exalted those who were humble. 53 “He has filled the hungry with good things; And sent away the rich empty-handed. 54 “He has given help to Israel His servant, In remembrance of His mercy, 55 As He spoke to our fathers, To Abraham and his descendants forever.”
Mary became the mother of Jesus, but she also likely became an author and song-writer of Scripture. Is this song a construction of Luke or of Mary? I don’t know, but I suspect Mary’s pondering in her heart came out in SONG! Let me ask this…what is the SONG about?
Mary’s song is about what she learned about God!
She praised God for WHO GOD IS in the giving of the gift. That is the heart of one who has met and experienced God. She called Him the…
1. All-seeing God (1:48a). You have seen one of low rank and elevated her. Principle: No one and no place is God forsaken, He misses nothing on earth!
2. Distinctive God (1:49) God does NOT work like men, His priorities are distinct and apart. No one is like Him.
3. Attentive God (1:50). God observes and recalls those who are faithful in their worship and walk. Her song warns – be not weary in well doing!
4. Innovative God (1:51a). God is not limited to the options we can see or even conceive of! (God loves to make surprise endings!) He can and does reverse the normal order of things!
5. Just and Gracious Judge (1:51b-52). God is ready to bypass those who are proud but elevate those of humble estate.
6. Merciful God (1:53). God fills those who hunger but have been left by other unsatisfied (cp. Ps. 107).
7. Faithful God (Covenant-keeping God, 1:54-55). God does what He promises, no matter how long it takes or how hard the circumstances. He overcomes the ages and the dark clouds. He gets it done… EVERY TIME!
When Gabriel spoke, Mary had no idea how his words would announce changes. Everything in her life changed. Her relationships changed. Her future changed. Her expectations changed. Most of all, her understanding of God changed. Celebration and thanksgiving came from a woman changed in heart, because she truly experienced God.
Anna (2:36-38) – a woman redirected
Late in Luke 2, there is another woman who was changed by God’s hand in her life. She wasn’t at the birth. She didn’t go to Bethlehem. She was at the Temple for the circumcision of Jesus. She was waiting…for God to do something in her life. Take a moment and consider her story.
Luke 2:36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
Her name meant “grace” (Channah) and her story showed how she learned to be a woman groomed by that name. If there was ever a case of God’s redirection, it was in the life of Anna. She learned: God may call upon you to reset your personal expectations to be of best use to His service. Her story touches me every time I read it.
She learned to find her identity in God’s call, instead of through a husband and children. She learned to move through the terrible pain of losing her husband, relying on God to financially and emotionally to meet the needs of her life – and she found the ultimate blessing wrapped in a bundle of the porch of the Temple. She learned that to be used of God fully, you may need to stop dwelling on the things that haven’t worked out and the ones who have committed a wrong against you, and learn to be thankful for God’s direction and those who do right to you!
Anna was very old by the time we are introduced to her in the Word. She was widowed after a marriage that lasted only a brief seven years. Now eighty-four years old, Anna learned patience and dependence upon God. She fasted and prayed day and night, never leaving the Temple. She was not like most women of her time. She chose a different path. Instead of finding her identity in a second marriage and raising children – she heard God’s direction and went a different way than people expected. She chose to serve the Lord. Her expectations, probably the same as other women of her day, were dramatically altered by God’s superintending in her life. She learned to move through the terrible pain of losing her husband, relying on God to financially and emotionally meet the needs of her life.
The people who have encouraged me the most were the people who over the long haul of life have learned to drink from the well of satisfaction from the Lord even when their life circumstances were not ideal. Sixty-five years of waiting is incredible patience to wait for anything – much less a baby to mark the redemption. God is in no hurry!
We will not experience instant depth, instant passion, instant deep praise. Genuine change of heart takes time. Genuine weaning of self-satisfaction to God’s purposes requires time and a painful transition as I leave the throne of my heart and He takes it.
Others are defined by their roles – Anna’s role was stripped from her and THEN God defined her real purpose. God used her in spite of being the definition of poor and hopeless. She was not forsaken, she was being set up to accomplish her life’s purpose!
In the Bible Christmas was Thanksgiving time.
It was a time to see God touch the lives of people, keep His promises, and redirect lives to His purposes. Shouldn’t it be that time for us as well?