Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 2:1-20

A. INTRODUCTION

I know it’s not Christmas yet, nevertheless, I want to ask the question, ‘How do we celebrate Christmas?’ And the reason I ask that is because it can never be too soon to consider our reply.

Because how we celebrate it, is a mark of how faithful we are to our Lord and Saviour. It says something about whether we believe or not. As a consequence, with all the preparations for Christmas starting earlier and earlier each year, we need to be prepared.

And that is why, today, I want to ask four questions about Christmas. And, by doing so, I want to see whether the way we celebrate the birth of Jesus is right or wrong.

B. THE FOUR QUESTIONS


1. Why Was Jesus’s Birth Really Necessary?
And the first question is: ‘Was Jesus’s birth really necessary?’

Well, I’d like you to imagine that you are God, and you’ve created a whole universe of your own. You’ve done it for a purpose: so that you can enjoy it, and so that you can be involved with the creatures that you’ve made.

And in order to enjoy your creatures to the full, you’ve given them freewill—the ability to choose for themselves how they live, how they respond to the world around them, and how they respond to you. You didn’t just want puppets—creatures that would do whatever you told them because that’s the way they were made. Rather, you wanted beings that responded to you on their own terms—that would treat you as God because they wanted to, rather than because they were made to.

All well and good, except that the consequence of creating beings with freewill, is that, generally, none of them have really acknowledged you as the creator. Most, whilst acknowledging your existence, have little time for you. Many want to replace you with gods of their own—made to their own liking. And some, even refuse to believe that you exist at all.

Now, if you were God faced with this scenario, what would you do?

Well, of course the obvious answer is to wipe the lot away; to create a flood or something like that, and maybe start all over again.

The trouble is you’ve already done that. And because you love your creation so much, you have vowed not to do it again. So, what do you do next? And what do you do, particularly as your second creation, has become as bad, if not worse, than the first?

The problem is that you can’t wipe out your second creation and be true to yourself. Because you’ve promised not to do that. So you need to come up with an alternative solution. And what you need is a means to remove that blockage—that sin of rejection—but without destroying the creatures that you’ve made. You need a substitute—a scape goat—so that the sin of the guilty can be passed on to someone who is innocent.

The trouble is, that scapegoat needs to be someone special. It needs to be someone who can experience everything that the rest of your creation has to face; someone who can live with the same limitations of any other human being. But someone who is free from sin and corruption themselves; someone who is able to have a perfect relationship and can live life totally devoted to you, the creator; someone who is prepared to give up everything for the cause, even his own life; and someone who will take the whole punishment, for the creatures that you’ve made.

And so, we ask the question ‘was Jesus’s birth really necessary?’ To which the answer is: Absolutely! He did it for our benefit. Because without exception, we are all guilty of not putting our creator first. And even if we were guilty of only doing that once, we would still be deserving of the same punishment as if we were a continuing offender. As a consequence, we all need the solution that God offered, that began with the birth of Jesus on that first Christmas day.

2. What Actually Happened When Jesus Was Born?
Now the second question, ‘What actually happened when Jesus was born?’ perhaps brings us into more familiar territory.

Of course the birth of Jesus didn’t just happen in isolation. It was foretold throughout history.
And in particular there are prophecies dating up to six hundred years before the birth of Jesus by the prophets Isaiah, Micah, and others foretelling the birth, life, and death of the Messiah.

Of the event itself, Nazareth in the time of the Emperor Augustus was a small and unimportant town in the district of Galilee. It was the home of Joseph and Mary—engaged to be married—and to whom each (separately) had been visited by an angel, telling them that Mary would become the mother of the long-awaited Messiah.

And, of course, while they were waiting for the baby to be born, Emperor Augustus ordered that a census to be taken. A census it appears which occurred every fourteen years—and was held so that the government could work out what taxes were due from the people. However, because of this census, Joseph had to return to the place from which his ancestors came. So he had to travel to Bethlehem, one hundred and thirty-five kilometres to the south, taking Mary with him.

Now, Bethlehem, for such an event, would have been a very crowded place. And as a consequence, finding accommodation was a problem. And so, Joseph and Mary had to stay in a cave, an outhouse, or a room in a private house. And while they were there, Mary gave birth to a son and she used an animal’s feeding trough as a makeshift bed for the baby. And he was given the name Jesus, which means ‘God saves’.

And although the importance of the birth passed unnoticed by most people, shepherds were alerted to his birth by some angels. So they went to see him. Seven days later on a visit to the Temple—and without being introduced—Simeon and Anna who worked there, recognised him and rejoiced at the birth of the Messiah too. And sometime later, even up to two years, Jesus was visited by some ‘wise men’ from the east—probably astrologers from Persia who studied the stars and believed that unusual events in the heavens were signs of important events on earth. And on arrival in Jerusalem, the astrologers were informed that according to Old Testament prophecy, God’s promised Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem ten kilometres to the south. And following the star, again, they found Jesus, and gave him gifts fit for a king.

But like all good stories, there is always someone nasty lurking in the wings. And King Herod, always fearful that someone might threaten his throne, heard about Jesus’s birth. And being determined to make sure that this new ‘king’ would not become a rival, he ordered that all boys less than two years of age in the Bethlehem area to be killed. As a consequence, Joseph and Mary fled with Jesus, south to Egypt, where they waited for Herod to die. Which he did in due course.

Unfortunately, Herod’s son Archelaus, was just as bad as his father. But despite that, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus returned to the family home at Nazareth. They just took a more roundabout route to avoid unwanted attention.

3. Why Did the Church Begin to Celebrate Christmas?
The third question is ‘Why did the church begin to celebrate Christmas?’

Now, that may seem like an odd question. But we need to remember that for the first three hundred and forty years after the birth of Jesus, Christmas was not celebrated by the church. It was not considered an important festival. And even today Christmas is not the most important festival on the church’s calendar.

So, why did the Church begin to celebrate Christmas?

Well, the celebration of Christmas really came about through an accident of history—and has its origins in Rome about 336 AD. Now even today we don’t know when Jesus was born, but it was most likely to have been in September, not December. And it was probably about 4 or 5 BC and not 1 AD. However, on 25th December each year, in Rome, a festival was held to worship the sun in the sky. And it was celebrated on 25th December, because that was the day in winter when the days stopped getting shorter, and started to lengthen. As a consequence, it was believed that the sun had conquered, yet again, the long nights of winter.

The problem for the Christian church was that the festival went against everything the church stood for. People were supposed to worship God, not the sun in the sky. And people were supposed to depend upon God, not on the apparent gods who controlled nature. And for the Christian church, what was worse, is that no matter how hard they tried, they just couldn’t stamp out the festival. The celebrations were just too popular.

So ever inventive, in the end they stopped trying. And instead, they gave the festival a Christian twist. And so it became known as the ‘Feast of the Nativity of the Sun of Righteousness’. (In other words Christmas as it is known in the western world.) And they changed the meaning of many of the practices to conform to the Christian faith.

Then, from small beginnings in Rome, the new festival grew in popularity. From Rome in the fourth century, it spread to Southern Turkey and North Africa. And in the fifth century, it finally arrived in Jerusalem, where one would have expected any celebration of Christmas to have begun.

The consequent customs of Christmas have derived from a number of sources—and they are mostly of non-Christian origin. Merrymaking and the exchange of presents find their origin in the Roman Saturnalia festival, in honour of the Roman God Saturn. The greenery and lights come from the Roman New Year celebrations, and have all sorts of pagan implications. And the tradition of feasting and fellowship comes from a German-Celtic background.

For a long time, in the US (and England) Christmas celebrations were objected to by the Puritans because of their pagan origins. And so it was only in the 19th century that the celebration of Christmas became really popular, and began to look anything like what we know it today.

4. How Should We Celebrate Christmas Today?
Which leads us into the fourth and last question: ‘How should we celebrate Christmas today?’

Well, Christmas means different things to different people. For some, it is a time of giving and receiving of presents; for others, it’s a time of catching up with relatives and old friends. For some, it’s nice food and drink—and even a time when it’s OK to over indulge; and for others, it’s a time to sing carols and to recall a pleasant story (that is, if you gloss over the poverty and the need for the holy family to be on the run).

C. APPLICATION

Yes, Christmas means different things to different people. However, what it should mean, and how it should be celebrated, should be wrapped up in the three questions (and answers) that I’ve just outlined today.

1. Why Was Jesus’s Birth Really Necessary?
Because to the question of ‘Why was Jesus’s birth really necessary?’ we have an image of our creator God, who was prepared to go to any lengths to save his creation. That’s the point of Christmas. It’s about a plan by God, so that you and I can be rescued from the wrong choices we’ve made—and continue to make—which includes our inability to treat God as we were created to do.

Without God’s plan, we would be lost. With God’s plan, we have the opportunity to be saved from ourselves.

The way we celebrate Christmas, then, should reflect, more than anything else, the choice that God has given us all: to accept God’s plan and spend eternity with God, or to remain outside God’s plan with all that that implies.

2. What Actually Happened When Jesus Was Born?
To the question ‘What actually happened when Jesus was born?’ we have an image of the creator God who not only gave us a plan, but who put it into practice too. As a consequence, we have something concrete to respond to. And that’s also what Christmas should be all about.

That means that the story of the nativity—the story of the birth of Jesus—is not just a nice story and one we should think of once a year. But rather, it is a story we are called to respond to. It’s about a saviour we need to accept deep in our hearts. And if we do that, then the birth of Jesus isn’t something we would want to celebrate once a year, but would be something that has meaning every day of the year.

3. Why Did the Church Begin to Celebrate Christmas?
And to the third question ‘Why did the church begin to celebrate Christmas?’ Well, even if we consider that the church was misguided in thinking that they could totally and permanently transform a pagan festival, at least we should acknowledge that their motivation was in the right place. They wanted to rescue people from themselves; they wanted to save souls.

4. How Should We Celebrate Christmas Today?
And that’s what Christmas should be about for us too. Because if we have accepted God’s plan and our need for rescue, and if we have accepted Jesus as our saviour, then the only step that really matters is our responsibility to give others the opportunity to accept God’s plan too.

However, we must always remember that God values free will, and people may not always do what is best for themselves.

D. CONCLUSION

Now there are many other questions that we could ask about Christmas. And these are only four that I’ve touched on briefly today. However, even these four raise some interesting questions in regard to what we believe, and how we respond to the Christmas story.

Not least of which is: ‘Have we accepted and adopted God’s plan for ourselves?’ ‘Has the birth of Jesus really made a difference to our lives?’ ‘Do we live our lives with a focus on sharing Jesus, and God’s plan with everyone that we can?’ And ‘Are all these things the central focus of our Christmas celebrations today?’

Something to think about in our approach to the Christmas season this year.



Posted: 30th April 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
www.brianacurtis.com.au