Saturday, December 31, 2016

How to Celebrate Christmas (Luke 2:1-20)

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There is something that just seems right about being here this morning to celebrate Christmas here in worship on Christmas Day. In fact, long before Christians began to celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25, Christians began gathering on Sunday to worship the Lord in commemoration of His resurrection, which was on a Sunday. It was several centuries before Christmas traditions began to arise, and nearly two millennia before observances such as we are accustomed to keeping began to develop. So, it is doubly fitting for us to gather together today for worship – first and foremost because it is the Lord’s Day, Sunday; and secondarily because this Lord’s Day happens to coincide with Christmas.

If you are in the regular habit of being in a service like this on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, you are part of a very slight majority in America. A 2013 study by the Pew Forum reported that 54% of Americans do so. Meanwhile, the same study revealed that 86% of Americans gather with extended family or friends on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and the same percentage buy gifts for family and friends. It is reported that 79% of Americans put up a Christmas tree, and 65% send Christmas cards.

If you wanted to be more creative in your Christmas celebrations, you could adopt some more unusual customs that are practiced elsewhere in the world. According to a 2010 article from Travel and Leisure’s website, in Guatemala, the devil is burned in effigy on a bonfire. In Japan, eating at KFC for Christmas is so popular that some locations require reservations. In Wales, friends go from home to home singing, accompanied by someone dressed up as a dead horse.[1] Or maybe you are like Ebenezer Scrooge, who sternly rebuked his gracious nephew, saying, “Keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine!” To which his nephew said, “But you don’t keep it,” and Scrooge retorted, “Let me leave it alone then!”

Undoubtedly your family has its own Christmas customs, as does mine. But if we really want to know how to celebrate Christmas, we need to look no further than the passage of Scripture which has just been read for us Luke 2:1-20. Here in the first Christmas, we find examples of the best ways for us to honor Christ and celebrate His birth in our Christmases! After the angel announced the good news of the Savior who had been born in Bethlehem, and the angelic host erupted in a song of cosmic praise, the shepherds, and those they encountered, celebrated the coming of Christ into the world in ways that we would do well to emulate!

I. Come and behold Christ the Lord! (vv15-16)

In the familiar song, “O Come All Ye Faithful,” we sing the familiar words, “Come and behold Him, born the King of Angels! O come let us adore Him, o come let us adore Him, o come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!” As we sing those words, we are giving voice to the ancient shepherds who heard the angelic announcement. While they were out in the fields with their flocks, the angel appeared and said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you; you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” This was more than an announcement of good news, it was an invitation to come and meet this Child and behold Him for themselves.

Notice what the shepherds did. They said to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” And we read that “they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph and the baby as He lay in the manger.” How else should we respond to the good news, the Gospel, that a Savior has been born for us?

We, who are separated from God by our sins, have been invited to come and meet the One who was born to take away our sins. The Christ of Christmas’s manger is the Christ of Easter’s cross. This baby would grow to live a life of perfect righteousness, completely free from sin, and He would die to be our substitute, so that in Him our sins can receive the full penalty they deserve under the holy justice of God. He takes our sins, and He offers us His righteousness in exchange. This is how He becomes our Savior, as we turn from our sins in repentance and claim Him by faith as our Lord, trusting Him to save us and reconcile us to God. You have heard the good news – a Savior has been born for you. Have you come to behold Him by faith for yourself, and call upon Him to save you? If not, then this is the best of all possible ways to celebrate Christmas – to come in a hurry and find your way to Jesus. Then you will be able to receive Christ as the gift of Heaven given to you as your Savior to rescue you from sin and reconcile you to God.

II. Go and tell the good news to others (v17)

These shepherds had a story to tell! They had seen and met the Savior! God had become a human being in the person of Jesus the Christ, and they had just seen Him with their own eyes! They had to tell others what had happened to them. The Bible says, “When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child.” As James Montgomery Boice said, “If their story was not worth telling, then no story that has ever been told is worth telling.”[2]

Not only did they have a story to tell, they knew that other people needed to hear this news as well. Others needed to know that a Savior had been born so that they could have hope and peace with God as well! These shepherds knew that they lived in a world filled with people who were lost, confused, and dying. Their world was no different than ours. All around us are multitudes who are, in the words of Ephesians 2:12, without hope and without God in the world. Lost, confused, dying, and separated from God the Father – this is the universal human condition. But Jesus had come to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life, that we might come to the Father by faith in Him (John 14:6). People who are lost need to find the way. Jesus is the Way! People who are confused need to find the truth, and Jesus is the Truth! People who are dying need to find life, and Jesus is the Life, and He said that no one comes to the Father but by Him. Therefore, it is incumbent upon all of us who have met Jesus and trusted Him as our Lord to proclaim to others that all of their desperate longings can be satisfied eternally in this Savior who has been born for them. We who have met Christ can celebrate His birth by announcing the good news to a world that needs to hear it!

III. Hear the good news with wonder (v18)

During the Christmas season, we have the good news presented to us in a variety of ways. There are the songs that sing of Christ’s birth. Christmas cards express Christian messages of faith, hope, and love. Our hearts are warmed every time we hear Linus tell Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about. We hear these things, but I wonder, do we wonder? The Bible says that those who heard what the shepherds were saying “wondered.” The word means “to be amazed,” “to marvel,” even “to be surprised.”

You know how your ears can become to dull to sounds you hear over and over again. We live in a very noisy place. From our house, we can hear the train. We also have a very noisy nightclub nearby whose loud music can rattle our windows. Our house is also right under the flight path of jets taking off at PTI. Many years ago, these sounds kept us up at night. Today we hardly notice it. But when someone visits our home for the first time and hears these sounds, they are amazed that we don’t even notice it. I suppose for some, the Christmas story is kind of like that. We have lost our sense of wonder at it.

If we would celebrate Christmas in the right kind of way, we would chase after that sense of wonder and never let it out of our grasp. How can we “get used to” or “get over” this astounding news of the grace of God? How we grow dull and merely yawn at the message that God has become one of us and come to save us? Perhaps we need to pray and ask God to help us recapture the wonder and amazement of the miracle of Christmas that this Savior has come. That would be a good way to celebrate Christmas – to revel in wonder, and to ask the Lord to multiply that wonder exponentially in our souls, as we hear the glad tidings that Christ the Lord has been born to save us!

IV. Treasure the good news and ponder it (v19)

Around my office, I have many things that I treasure. There’s a sculpture that my grandfather made, pictures of my kids, and pictures they have drawn, pictures of my wife and my friends, objects I have brought back from my travels, and so on. And within all of our hearts, we have similar kinds of treasures. Memories of magical moments when we wished that time could just stand still. We cherish them and cling to them, pulling them to the forefronts of our minds just to behold them for a minute and smile.

The Bible says that Mary treasured this moment, when all of these things were occurring around her – the birth of her child, the visit of the shepherds, the stories they told of angels who had visited them, and the memories of her own visitation from an angel who announced God’s plan for her to bear this child. These things and many more, “all these things,” Mary treasured and pondered in her heart. To “ponder” is to reflect meditatively. When one is pondering, he or she is thinking intently about something, piecing it together like a puzzle, and tying together the strings of understanding and meaning. Mary was connecting dots in her mind, reflecting on God’s mercy and grace to her, and considering all that the birth of this child meant to her, and what it would mean to the whole world.

This is how we are to celebrate Christmas. We are to take the truths of God’s word as treasures into our hearts and ponder them. We are to take “all these things” in: the promises and prophecies that foretold the birth of the Savior, and the narrative accounts of how it came to pass, and the Gospel truths that proclaim the salvation that Jesus was born to bring us. We ponder them, reflecting meditatively upon them. We ponder the moment when these things became real to us personally, that moment when we first turned to Christ in faith and trusted in Him to save us. We ponder how His grace has worked within us since that day. We ponder the promise of heaven and the hope of eternity spent in God’s presence, all because this Savior has been born for us! We ponder the miracle, and we ponder the mystery, and we ask the Lord to deepen our understanding and sharpen our affection and adoration for Him as we rehearse these treasures in our hearts and minds.

It would be a wasted Christmas if we take in all the customs and traditions and do not spend time pondering the treasures of who Christ is and what it is that He has done for us, is doing in and through us, and will do with us forever. Though there is much perhaps that we do not understand, we cling to Him by faith, and ask Him to enlarge our faith into understanding, and to do so evermore until our faith becomes sight and we behold Him face to face.

And then finally, we can celebrate Christmas as we …

V. Go back with glory and praise to God for the gift of the Lord Jesus

Verse 20 says that the shepherds went back – back to their fields, back to their flocks – but they went back as changed men. They went back glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen. They were caught up in the worship of God-in-Christ.

There have been many popular Christmas songs over the years that asked why the special feeling of Christmas can’t last all year long. Maybe you have wondered the same. Within a few days, the presents will all be unwrapped and put away, the tree will come down, and we will go back. For some who are here visiting family and friends, you will go back home. For those who have enjoyed a few days off, you will go back to work. We have to go back. But we do not have to go back the same. If we have truly celebrated Christmas – if we have beheld Christ, if we have told the story, and heard it afresh with wonder, if we have treasured these things and ponder them in our hearts, we can go back praising and glorifying God for all that we have heard and seen concerning this Lord Jesus who was born to save us. We can go back with a fresh commitment to worship the Lord Jesus every day, and to serve Him with gladness, filled with His Spirit and with songs of praise in our hearts.
I have to tell you about one of the first times I ever heard Chad sing. Some years ago, when his brother Brad was on staff with me at a different church, Chad and his band came and they sang a song called “A Different Way.” It starts out about the visit of the Magi, who, after they visited Jesus and were warned of Herod’s evil plot, decided to leave a different way. The song says, “No matter what road you may be walking, come to Jesus today, and you’ll leave a different way.” The Magi did, and the shepherds did too. In fact, all who truly have a personal encounter with Jesus do.

If we encounter Him, He will transform us, and we will leave a different way. Then we will know that we have really celebrated Christmas, and the amazing thing is that everyone we meet will know it as well. And perchance, as we explain to them how we have celebrated Christmas, they may come to celebrate it in this true way as well.

Richard Walters gave me a copy of a wonderful prayer some time ago, and I think it captures my own sentiments and my prayer for us all as I bring this message to a close:
May you be filled with the wonder of Mary, the obedience of Joseph, the joy of the angels, the eagerness of the shepherds, the determination of the magi, and the peace of the Christ Child! May it be so today, and every day, for Christ’s sake, and in His name we pray, Amen.






[1] http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/worlds-strangest-holiday-traditions. Accessed December 18, 2014.
[2] James Montgomery Boice, The Christ of Christmas (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2009), 170. 

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