Keeping Christ in Xmas
December 23, 2001 | Randy Smith
Keeping Christ In X-masLuke 2:1-20
Sunday, December 23, 2001
Pastor Randy Smith
As with many new Christians, I can remember my misguided zeal when I first became a believer. One of the first items the Lord brought to my attention was the true meaning of Christmas. In my desire to glorify Christ in Christmas, I rummaged through every Christmas box I could find in storage and abruptly scribbled out "Xmas" and replaced it with "Christmas." Now that was in June, but my intent was that I would never X Christ out of Christmas!
Maybe I was a bit carried away, but the overarching premise holds much weight. Today, there can be no doubt that Christ has been replaced with an "X" during Christmas. Gifts, decorations, parties and Santa Claus capture the spotlight in December. The birth of our Savior, the reason for the season, has become nothing more than a secular holiday and not a holy day.
Consider the lady recently interviewed while Christmas shopping. When asked as to the meaning of Christmas, she replied, "I don't know. Is that the day that Jesus died?" In many ways there is great truth to that statement.
Throughout the past thee months we have been studying the superiority of Jesus Christ in Colossians. Christmas, the birth of our Savior is possibly one of the best times to exalt Christ's supremacy. That was God's intention that first Christmas 2,000 years ago. But how far our society has fallen in following God's established pattern. What is Christmas today? What must we do to emulate that first Christmas orchestrated by God? Let's examine how we can keep Christ in Xmas.
I dare not waste much time in proving that the true meaning of Christmas has been lost. We all know how far this day has fallen from exalting Christ, how secular it has become. While the church has miserably failed in communicating her message, the retailers have greatly succeeded in communicating theirs. In 1991, Garbage Magazine (anybody subscribe?) stated that Americans used 28,497,464 rolls and sheets of wrapping paper, 16,826,362 packages of tags and bows, 35,200,000 Christmas trees and 372,430,684 greeting cards during the 1989 Christmas season.
In speaking of Christmas cards, I have one before me that really epitomizes the sad ignorance that most people face. "To believe in making wishes and have faith they can come true. To believe that you can find some joy in everything you do. To believe in giving gladly, for no reason, just because. To believe in love…that's what it means to believe in Santa Claus." Is this how we are to celebrate the birth of our Savior, the One who made us for His glory? The One who deserves first place in everything (Col. 1:18)?
Political correctness has hit the message hard in recent years as well. This editorial by Dave Barry appeared in Chicago Tribune Magazine, July 28, 1991. "To avoid offending anybody, the school dropped religion altogether and started singing about the weather. At my son's school, they now hold the winter program in February and sing increasingly nonmemorable songs such as "Winter Wonderland," "Frosty the Snowman" and-this is a real song-"Suzy Snowflake," all of which is pretty funny because we live in Miami. A visitor from another planet would assume that the children belonged to the Church of Meteorology."
Our country and possibly even the church have lost the true meaning of Christmas, which is the worship of Jesus Christ.
What's all this hectic rush and worry?
Where go these crowds who run and scurry?
Why all the lights-the Christmas trees?
The jolly "fat man," tell me please!
Why, don't you know? This is the day
For parties and for fun and play;
Why this is Christmas!
So this is Christmas, do you say?
But where is Christ this Christmas day?
Has He been lost among the throng?
His voice drowned out by empty song?
No. He's not here-you'll find Him where
Some humble soul now kneels in prayer,
Who knows the Christ of Christmas.
But see the many aimless thousands
Who gather on this Christmas Day,
Whose hearts have never yet been opened,
Or said to Him, "Come in to stay."
In countless homes the candles burning,
In countless hearts expectant yearning
For gifts and presents, food and fun,
And laughter till the day is done.
But not a tear of grief or sorrow
For Him so poor He had to borrow
A crib, a colt, a boat, a bed
Where He could lay His weary head.
I'm tired of all this empty celebration,
Of feasting, drinking, recreation;
I'll go instead to Calvary.
And there I'll kneel with those who know
The meaning of that manger low,
And find the Christ-this Christmas.
I leap by faith across the years
To that great day when He appears
The second time, to rule and reign,
To end all sorrow, death, and pain.
In endless bliss we then shall dwell
With Him who saved our souls from hell,
And worship Christ-not Christmas!
What is the true meaning of Christmas? Well, like the poem says, let me take you back over 2000 years to the first Christmas. Let's revisit that glorious biblical account and specifically examine the supremacy of Christ in the Christmas message.
In contrast to today's Christ-less Christmas, God so orchestrated the events during the first Christmas to frame the supremacy of Christ in a remarkable way without diminishing His humility. On that first Christmas, Jesus did not appear to kings in a palace, nor was His birth surrounded with splendor and royalty. Rather, God chose the weak things of the world to shame the wise and better provide a backdrop that would not rob, but rather radiate the glory of the newborn King. Unlike today, the humble events surrounding Christ's birth that first Christmas allowed Him to be the center focus and attraction of the day.
Mary and Joseph
Take for example Mary and Joseph. "Now it came about in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all were proceeding to register for the census, everyone to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register, along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. And it came about that while they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her first-born son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn" (Lk. 2:1-7).
The census of the land forced each man to return to his place of birth. Being from the lineage of David, Joseph returned to his own birthplace and the birthplace of David himself, the town called Bethlehem. It was told that Mary accompanied him on the journey. We know from the Scripture that she was great with child, very near to giving birth to Jesus. Kent Hughes paraphrased this account well. "Caesar Augustus' relentless arm stretched out to squeeze its tribute even in a tiny village at the far end of the Mediterranean. Thus it came about that a village carpenter and his expectant teenage bride (Mary 13-14 yrs. old) were forced to travel to his hometown to be registered for taxation. It was a miserable journey. Mary was full-term which forced a slow, rolling gait as she walked those 80 miles. Perhaps, if she was fortunate, she had borrowed an animal to carry her. But whatever the situation, she traveled in the dust and (unfavorable elements of weather), bearing the distressing knowledge that she might have her first baby far from home, from her mother, and from nearly everyone that cared about her."
While in Bethlehem the account tells us that Mary gave birth to the child. Due to the census, which forced many to immigrate to the town, the inns were full. The baby was to be born in less than hospitable accommodations. Historians argue as to whether it was a stable, courtyard or cave, but nevertheless, the surroundings were dark, dirty and despicable. Jesus was wrapped in swaddling cloths and placed in a manger (a feeding trough for animals). One commentator said everything in this story pointed to obscurity, poverty and even rejection. You can almost feel Mary's pain, Joseph's shame…you can smell the stinking barnyard…you can sense the people's indifference and the couple's helplessness…you can see the young, poorly dressed couple surrounded by a plethora of dirty animals. Onlookers, if any, could already predict the short and meaningless future this child would have. Most likely He would follow in the footsteps of His uneducated parents…insignificant nobodies from the nothing town of Nazareth. Even Bethlehem, according to Mic. 5:2, was an insignificant city itself.
The reader of this account in Luke can't help but contrast the birth of Jesus with Caesar Augustus, the great Emperor mentioned in verse 1. Augustus' name in itself means "revered." The vast Roman Empire was under his sole authority. In many ways we still honor him today, every time we turn our calendars to the month of August, a month named on his behalf. In a time of emperor worship, Caesar Augustus, to many, was a god.
However, Caesar Augustus was at best only a man, a man that would attempt to become god. But born without his awareness was God who became man that first Christmas in Bethlehem. Though Jesus appeared to be a helpless pawn caught in the midst of secular history, He was a King. And King Augustus, thought to be most significant, was a pawn used by God to issue the decree. The decree providentially enabled the couple to return to Bethlehem to fulfill the ancient prophecy.
The humble King was born, and nothing during that first Christmas would steal His glory. He came forth as a baby. Out came the Son of God. The Word without word as Augustine said. Nothing could be lower or more scandalous, but nothing could better frame the humility and supremacy of Christ. There was no doubt in the mind of God as to who stole the show that first Christmas.
Beyond Mary, Joseph and the stable, the shepherds also served as a humble backdrop to radiate the supremacy of Christ. "And in the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields, and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. And the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall 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. "And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger." And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased." And it came about when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds began saying 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 they came in haste and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. And when they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them" (Lk. 2:8-20).
Again Luke records another account of the blessed Christmas story that we love to hear. While the world remained clueless to the birth of the Christ-child, Luke records a glorious revelation brought to the shepherds. While they were watching their flocks by night (some believe these were the sacrificial sheep destined for sacrifice in the Temple due to their proximity to Jerusalem-5-6 miles away), an angel of the Lord announced to them the birth of the true and final and perfect sacrificial sheep, Jesus Christ. It was presented as "Good News." The "Good News" being that this baby was born to die on a cross to save His people from their sins. In 33 years Jesus was to be the ultimate sacrifice as He shed His blood on Calvary's cruel wooden cross. Peter in his epistle said "He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross" (1 Pet. 2:24). Not anybody could assume this awesome responsibility; it must be a perfect substitute and sacrifice. According to the angels, it would be none else than "Christ the Lord" (Lk. 2:11). Literally the words mean anointed Messiah, God. The child was described in the highest terms possible.
Suddenly there appeared before the shepherds a heavenly host, an army of angels beyond count, praising God for His gracious gift to mankind. And though the angels praised God, the gift was not for them, but for man. For Christ did not come to become an angel, nor did He come to redeem fallen angels; rather, He became a man and came in order that he might redeem man. He came to forgive man his sins and reconcile him back to God.
Possibly most fascinating about this story is the select company who first received the "Good News." According to the text, they were none other than shepherds. Though Christmas cards portray them well, shepherds in the first century were dirty, regarded as thieves and despised by the "good" and respectable people of the day. Their work in the fields kept them from religious activities in the community, adding further to their condemnation. They were not permitted to give testimony in law courts. The only people thought to be lower during that particular time in Jewish history (on most social lists) were lepers.
But these humble outcasts had the privilege to receive such wonderful news and the opportunity to be among the first to see the baby in the manger. It was not the high and mighty, but rather the low and needy to whom Christ appeared. He came to those who knew they were in need of a physician. He came to those who felt they were not above the need for a Savior.
Framing the supremacy of Christ, we now add to the picture: a poor teenage couple, a filthy barn, and some of the lowest outcasts of the day. How did theses humble shepherds respond? Luke 2 says they (vs. 16) "came in haste." They (vs. 17) "made known the statement which had been told them about this Christ." Finally (in vs. 20) "the shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them."
Eager worship. Christ-centered evangelism. Glorifying and praising God. Do you think they knew the true meaning of Christmas? You bet they did! Was Christ exalted? You bet He was!
The shepherds saw with their own eyes that God had come into the world. They realized that the God who comes into the world is ready to come into human hearts- humble human hearts that rejoice, that wonder, that marvel in His supremacy and sufficiency to save. May we realize the joy the shepherds experienced that first Christmas by glorifying God for His salvation and ascribing to the Christ-child the place of honor which He deserves.
Finally, I'd like to examine one more party that humbly framed the birth of our King and appropriately magnified His supremacy, the Magi. "Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him." And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he began to inquire of them where the Christ was to be born. And they said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet, 'And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; For out of you shall come forth a Ruler, Who will shepherd My people Israel.'" Then Herod secretly called the magi, and ascertained from them the time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, "Go and make careful search for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, that I too may come and worship Him." And having heard the king, they went their way; and lo, the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them, until it came and stood over where the Child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell down and worshiped Him; and opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their own country by another way" (Mt. 2:1-12).
Matthew's goal throughout his gospel is to present Jesus as the King. What greater way is there to prove His kingship than to show how the Magi honored Him. Matthew showed how the Magi called Jesus the "King of the Jews." Matthew showed how King Herod was filled will jealousy and rage that another king would usurp his throne.
These Magi, foreigners to Jerusalem, must have been shocked to hear that none of the inhabitants were expecting the birth of Jesus. How the Magi became aware of Christ's birth is speculation, but we do know that God gave them a star to follow as they traveled from the east. Many speculations have been provided as to the identity of the star- a planet, a low flying comet, possibly even a star itself. However, I believe the "star" was none other that the Shekinah Glory of God, the same light that guided the Israelites in the dark wilderness and the same light that shone around the shepherds in Luke 2.
Eventually the Magi in seeking Jesus sought help from the chief priests and scribes of the people. Surely they thought the religious folk would have some clue as to the whereabouts of this spiritual King. The prophecy is quoted from Micah 5:2, "And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; For out of you shall come forth a Ruler, Who will shepherd My people Israel." The child was to be born in Bethlehem.
Why did the Magi have such tenacity to find the Child? Matthew 2:2 says they were seeking to "worship Him." And when they found Him the text says "they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy" (Mt. 2:10). Charles Wesley captured this experience in his popular hymn: "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate deity; pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel." Out of the overflow of a worshipping heart, the Magi presented sacrificial gifts and returned home a different way after being warned in a dream.
As much as we love to retell this Christmas account, possibly no other biblical story has fallen to such significant error. Often, according to home nativity sets these magi are pictured as kings, representing different ethnic backgrounds, visiting Jesus in the manger and always three in number. Though sentimental, all of these facts are biblically inaccurate.
The Magi were most likely pagan astrologers that came from either Arabia, or most likely Babylon. They were Gentiles with limited knowledge of Judaism. Originally their name was used for a Persian priestly caste, but later was widely attributed to anyone who practiced astrology or magic. As a matter of fact, our English word "magic" is a derivative of magi. Though these magi could be considered "wise men" in some circles because of their occultic practices, they definitely were not Kings. In the account, we are not told of their names, their means of transportation or even their number. Estimates say that there were more than three (a number which is often associated with their gifts) due to the fact that these magi often traveled in large numbers for safety. Furthermore, the text in verse 11 indicates that they visited the child (not the baby) in his house (not in the barn). This indicates that the arrival was several months after the birth of Christ.
But in keeping with our theme this morning, I found it interesting that God again chose to magnify Christ's supremacy against a backdrop of people who we would least expect. God did not choose to reveal Himself to King Herod. Nicknamed "the Great," Herod was the King of the land. The cruel, lying and merciless king was not desirous of worshipping the Christ. Rather he sought to eliminate his rival by ruthlessly slaying every male child under the age of two in Bethlehem (2:16). Herod met the birth of the Savior with hostility.
Surely the chief priests and scribes of the people would act differently. After all, they knew the prophetic announcement from Micah 5. They personally directed the Magi in the right direction. But they chose to stay in the ivory tower of religion. They did not even follow the Magi to Bethlehem out of curiosity. No, they had more important spiritual business to attend. They were indifferent to He who was born "King of the Jews" as ascribed by the Magi.
But that left the Magi who came to worship. They did not come to worship the stars, nor did they come to worship Mary. Rather the text says they came "to worship Him" (verse 2). In verse 11 we read, "And they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell down and worshiped Him." They came from afar, grown men of a different land, different lineage and different economic status to pay homage to the child. They bowed before Him and presented gifts (not their leftovers, but their best), which represented His royalty and divinity. The reader of Matthew's account is left with no doubt as to the true King, the King of all Kings, and the true spiritual leader in Israel. It was not Herod or the chief priests, but none other than Jesus Christ.
Whether it be, Joseph and Mary, the dirty stable, the humble shepherds or the pagan Magi, the magnificent superiority of Jesus Christ was perfectly framed by its surroundings that first Christmas. Nothing distracted from the intent of the message, and the response was none other than worship!
In December 1903, after many attempts, the Wright brothers were successful in getting their "flying machine" off the ground. Thrilled, they telegraphed this message to their sister Katherine: "We have actually flown 120 feet. Will be home for Christmas." Katherine hurried to the editor of the local newspaper and showed him the message. He glanced at it and said, "How nice. The boys will be home for Christmas." He totally missed the big news-man had flown!
How many will likewise totally miss the big news this Christmas that God was born a man, to die and ransom His people from their sins? I pray that is not true of you this morning! I pray that you have not X'ed Christ out of your Christmas! I pray that you are unlike the innkeeper and have made room in your heart for Christ! I pray that you will realize that religious sentiment, even at Christmastime, without Jesus Christ, is a yellow brick road to darkness! I pray that you will realize that wise men still seek Jesus! May we emulate that first Christmas and let nothing distract us from that glorious message now and throughout the year. May Jesus Christ receive all the attention so nothing will compete with the first-place position that He deserves in our lives and in our hearts.