David Jeremiah - The Response to Christmas
We often look back at Christmases of the past with a special fondness. Memories of giving and receiving cherished gifts, meaningful time spent with those we love, moments savoring a meal to mark the occasion. Minutes where all is right become precious mementos of our past. While time moves on, the world around us shifts and we change. Christmas doesn't have to. Your best Christmas ever is ready for you to make. Family, friends, and festivities can be a part of that which makes the holiday special, but the best Christmas ever is the one where Christ is in its center. The greatest Christmas planning was God's on the very first, when God sent his Son to earth, the ultimate present to his children.
I'm David Jeremiah with a Christmas question to ask you. What is the central part of family Christmas celebrations? There are many good answers to that question, but I believe the exchange of gifts is near the top of the list because of what gift giving represents. For the giver, a gift represents generosity, maybe even sacrifice, and for the recipient, a gift brings out feelings of gratitude and humility. These responses to family gift giving our perfect mirrors for how we should respond to the gift God gave to the world on that first Christmas. God's generosity and sacrifice should create gratitude and humility in each one of us. In today's message, which I call, "The Response To Christmas", we'll examine four responses we can find in the story of the first Christmas. So, join me as we discover them together on today's Christmas edition of, "Turning Point".
Today I want to talk with you about how we should respond to Christmas. In the four narratives of the Christmas story, there is a hidden truth that will help us isolate the responses of Christmas that will enable us to experience, not just the message of Christmas, but the meaning that it can have to our own lives. We will begin our journey by reading the story backwards. Instead of beginning with Mary, and Joseph, and the shepherds, we will begin our story with the wise men.
That story is recorded for us in Matthew chapter 2, verses 1 through 12 where we read these words, "Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.' When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, 'In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet".
And he quotes Micah chapter 5, verse 2, "'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.' Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, 'Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.' When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way".
Now, we know this story. It's read to us every year, it's in almost every church service somewhere. We do not know exactly when the wise men came to worship Jesus, but we know some things that most people don't want to accept and, that is, as much as it works for us to have the wise men at the manger in our traditional nativity scenes, the wise men weren't at the manger. In fact, the wise men did not really connect with the Lord Jesus until almost two years after he was born. There are a couple of clues in this passage that help us understand that. First of all, we are told that, when they came to worship Jesus, they came to a house, it's right there in the text. Mary and Joseph would love to have been in a house, but they weren't in a house. When Jesus was born, they were in a shed or a barn.
In verse 9 and verse 11, the baby in the wise men narrative is called a child and this, in the Greek language, is a different word than the one used to describe the baby in the manger. The word "child" is a reference to a young child and adequately describes someone who would be about two years old. The Scriptures tell us that the wise men came from afar. It took several miracles to get the wise men to the place where Jesus was. The Bible tells us they followed a star, and the star had been seen in the east and now appeared to them in such a specific way that it directed them to the very house where Jesus was.
Now, Bethlehem's five miles south of Jerusalem, and stars travel from the east to the west, not from the north to the south. It is very probable that the star that these men saw hovering over the house where Jesus was, was none other than the Shekinah glory of God himself, the very same glory that led the children of Israel through the wilderness and stayed with them for 40 years. All of this is true about the wise men.
And let me pause and say, we don't have two years to tell the story, so we tell it all in one day. And we bring the wise men into the story, as they well belong, but just a little trivia to tuck in the back of your head. The wise men weren't there when the shepherds were, they came at a different time. And Matthew tells us that when the wise men came to the house where the star had led them, they presented their gifts of love to the Lord Jesus Christ, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and they received a gift in return, the gift of giving a gift.
If there's ever a season of the year when we learn that it's more fun to give than it is to receive, this is the season and the older we get, the more that is true. The joy is in giving and not receiving. And I'd like to suggest to you that one of the ways we can respond to Christmas is through the sacrifice of giving. Few of us have riches like the wise men. The calculation of their gifts has been done by many before me, and it is quite astonishing what they gave to the Lord. But what matters most, men and women, is not how much we have, but what we do with what we have.
One last thought about the wise men and their generosity, here's what you learn when you study their story, they gave of their time. As I mentioned, this journey took as long as two years. They invested two years of their time to get to Jesus. They gave their talent. These were wise men, they used their wisdom to seek out the place where the Savior was to be born and they gave their treasure. Time, talent, and treasure are still the gold standard of worshiping God and giving to him.
All of us have some of each. We all have time, we all have our talents, and we all have some treasures. And when we respond to Christmas, we ask ourselves, what are we doing with what God has given to us to advance the cause of Christ in the world where we live? And then, the story of the shepherds gives us another clue as to how to respond to Christmas. We're told about that story in Luke chapter 2, verses 8 through 20, and we're not going to read the whole story but we're going to start at the end of the story where we read these words.
So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, 'Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.' And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. And Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.
The shepherds are continually an enigma. The shepherds frankly don't belong in this story. Only God had the editorial right to put them in there, but he did. My friend Warren Wiersbe was invited to speak at the graduation ceremony of a well-known seminary, and he gave the budding pastors something to think about when he told this story:
A promising college senior at an acclaimed Ivy League university was undergoing a battery of personality and aptitude tests offered by the career placement office at school. He was from a blue blood aristocratic family who expected him to take the high road into the upper strata of society when he graduated. He was on the edge of his seat as the counselor announced the results of his test. Hudson, I have good news, the tests are absolutely consistent and conclusive in their findings. Upon graduation, the ideal path for you to pursue is to become, what Hudson thought would be a doctor, a lawyer, or a banker. The ideal path for you to pursue, said the counselor, is to become a shepherd.
A shepherd? I don't have to paint a picture for you of the rest of that story. I just imagine the astonishment when a future member of the family looks at the family tree and sees among the doctors, lawyers, judges, and others, Hudson Meriwether Prestigious IV 1965 to 2050, shepherd, or imagine the great hall of prestigious portraits. The walls are covered with oil paintings of past luminaries and judges's robes, doctors's white coats, expensive three-piece suits, and then there's Hudson in a dirt-covered pair of jeans, a soiled T-shirt, sweat-stained hat standing in the middle of a herd of hapless and helpless sheep.
Can you say this disconnect? I mean no disrespect if you happen to be a shepherd here today, but in biblical days, the shepherds were considered the lowliest of the low in society. So, it continues to fascinate me that out of all of Israel, God chose to reveal himself through his Son, first of all, to the shepherds. And it was not enough for the shepherds to hear the message of hope from the angels. The message required a response, and each of these men had to make a decision to follow the instructions of the angel.
The Shepherd's were the first worshipers and evangelists of Jesus Christ in history. They model what we are to do today. We're to worship him, we're to bow before him in humility and simplicity, then were to tell others the good news that he has come. We are to make widely known, according to the Scripture, the saying concerning this child. After seeing Jesus, as the shepherds left the manger, they told everyone in their path of the things that had happened to them. The shepherds teach us what we are already in the process of learning, that worshiping Christ is impossible without serving Christ, and one of the ways we serve Christ is by telling others about him.
It's not a rocket science study. It's just telling them what God has done for you. Many of you have done that already during this season, but what a wonderful response to Christmas. Go tell somebody what God has done for you. Go share with somebody how blessed you are to be called a Christian and what it means to you personally.
And then, the third response is in the life of Joseph. Once again, Joseph is told this unbelievable story. He's told the story of what's going to happen. It is hard for him to comprehend the message that is given to him. Joseph, the son of Jacob, was God's choice to act as an earthly father to Jesus Christ. He was a carpenter and as such most, probably a simple and practical man. He would have liked the feel of wood and stone and the satisfaction of building something that was beautiful. We can imagine that he set about a life that would be orderly and ordinary.
According to Matthew's genealogy, Joseph was a royal person, a potential king, but we don't know very much about him. He appears on the scene for only a moment and then he disappears almost as if to emphasize that Jesus was born of a virgin without a man. The only other time he's mentioned in all of Scripture is when 12-year-old Jesus inadvertently is left in Jerusalem. After that, Joseph isn't mentioned again in the narrative of the New Testament. Yet, this one thing we know, when we meet Joseph, he's in the midst of a crisis in his life, one of the most incredible crises in the story of humanity. He's called upon to marry a pregnant virgin, to bear the scorn and absorb the burdens of raising the man of sorrows.
Several years ago, Maxwell Lucado and I, along with some other friends, put together a little Christmas book containing some of our favorite Christmas sermons. With his typical freshness, Max described Joseph as being caught between what God says and what makes sense. Have you ever been caught between what you know God is saying and what makes sense to you? Yet, he didn't let his confusion disrupt his obedience. He didn't know everything, but he did know what he knew. And he shut down his business, and picked up his family, and went to another country because that is what God said to do.
There's no record in Matthew's account of Joseph speaking one single word in the narrative of Christmas, but we have something more important than his words. We have the record of his obedience. And we read in verses 24 and 25 of Matthew 1, "Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name Jesus".
As practically hard and publicly humiliating as it might have been, Joseph silently obeyed God's instructions. Men and women, obedience is not usually a public thing, is it? It's what we hear God say to us and we do it. It usually doesn't get up on the marquee. Nobody knows about it except for us, and in our hearts we know. We know when we say yes to God and we know when we don't answer God, which is like saying no. And Joseph illustrates for us the power of responding to Christmas with silent obedience to what God is speaking to us in our hearts.
It is impossible for you to go through all that we go through during this season. If you're a Christian without hearing a prompting from God somewhere along the way, go help that person, Get things right with your children, go find a way to be of ministry in your community or in your church. God speaks to us like that, we know that. He surely does to me, and I know he does to you. And Joseph teaches us that when we hear things that are hard for us to comprehend, and sometimes things we don't really want to have any part of but we know it's from God, silently, we obey. And then finally, we come to the center of the story apart from Jesus, and that's the person, Mary.
Mary's story is well-known to all of us, and she is told that she's going to be the mother of the Lord Jesus. And when she hears this, she responds as we would respond. "Then Mary said to the angel, 'How can this be, since I do not know a man?'" In other words, "How can I have a child? I've never been with a man".
"And the angel answered and said to her, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. And indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.' "And Mary said", here is her response, 'Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.' And the angel departed from her".
The last personality in our little personality profile is Mary, and the record of Mary's response is one of the great stories of the Bible. Mary was not perfect, Luke tells us that she was highly favored, but she was chosen from all the women in the world to be the one woman through whom God would send his Son into human flesh. Up until this particular day, Mary probably lived a very normal life, and then, in the midst of routine, a single supernatural moment shattered the normality of her life and the angel stood before her.
When did it happen? Perhaps while Mary was kneeling beside her bed attending to prayers, beginning or finishing a day. How frightening the sudden arrival of a heavenly messenger must have been for peasant girl. Gabriel's appearance frightened Mary. When he saw how afraid she was, he assured her there was no reason for fear, for the news he was bringing was wonderful. She was about to be blessed among all the women of the world. She would have a son who would be the Son of the Most High.
Consider the change that came about in Mary's life. Thoughts of marriage turned to thoughts of motherhood, and thoughts of a quiet ordinary life turned to the anticipation of being at the center of a spectacular miracle from heaven. No wonder God sent Gabriel to help her understand and get ready. As the exclamation of her role and redemption began to take hold of her heart, Mary responded with these words, don't ever forget these words. These are not just words for Mary, these are words for us. "Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word". In other words, "Lord God, whatever you got in mind, count me in, I'm in".
I marvel at her submissive attitude to the will of God. In that particular day, for a woman to be pregnant out of wedlock, especially a Jewish woman, could cost her her life. Adultery was punished by stoning. She knew that she would be the laughingstock of her community, and the byword of every idle conversation. She knew that people wouldn't understand. She wondered in her heart about Joseph to whom she was engaged. But in spite of all that, because God had spoken, Mary submitted and said, "Lord, whatever it is that you want, I am willing".
You see the thread that runs through all four of these narratives? The wise men obeyed and brought their gifts, theirs was an obedience of sacrifice. The shepherds obeyed, came to the manger, praising and glorifying God. Theirs was the obedience of service. Joseph quietly accepted the incredible story of Mary's pregnancy, and did what he was asked to do and his was the obedience of silence. Mary said, "Let it be to me according to your Word". Hers was the obedience of submission.
Is it not time for you to respond to the Christmas message by submitting to God's kindness, and if you have yet to do so, receiving Christ as your Lord and Savior? And is it not for us, who are Christians, a great opportunity to take inventory in our own lives? "How am I doing, Lord? How am I doing with submission to your will when I don't even understand it? How am I doing in serving you? How am I doing in saying yes when it doesn't make sense to me? How am I doing in the sacrifice of my time, talent, and treasure"?
And for those who do not know the Lord Jesus Christ, there can only be one thing important and that is to understand that behind all of the imagery and pageantry of this season is a true story of a God in heaven, who loved us so much that he gave to us the greatest treasure heaven had, the only begotten Son of the Father who came to this world and went to the cross to die for us so that we could be forgiven.
The story of redemption begins in Bethlehem when God became flesh, when Christ came to be one of us, to join into the humanity experience, and ultimately in his humaneness, go to the cross, not leaving anything of his divinity behind. And on that day outside of Jerusalem, God died in his Son's body so that you and I could be set free. I know that most of us have some inkling of that story, but we are living, men and women, in what most people call the post Christian era. Things that we understood normally, just because we grew up in America, no longer exist in our thinking process. Even young people who grow up in Christian homes are not taught the main stories of the Bible.
So, I want to conclude with a human story that illustrates this incredible God story. During the reign of Russian Tsar Nicholas I, there was a young man in his army whose father was one of his close friends. Because of that relationship, this young man was given a very responsible post. He was the paymaster of one of the barracks for the Russian army, and it was his responsibility to see that the right amount of money was distributed each month to the soldiers.
The young man meant well, but his character was not up to his responsibility. He began to gamble and, eventually, he gambled away most of his own money and a great deal of the government's money. In due course, the young man received notice that a representative of tsar was coming to check the accounts, and he knew that he was in trouble. That evening, he got out the books and totaled up the funds that were owed. Then he went to the safe and got out his own pitifully small amount of money and as he sat there and he looked at the two, he was overwhelmed at the astronomical debt that he had built up versus his own small change.
He was a ruined man. He knew he would be disgraced. At last, he determined the only way for him was to take his life. He pulled out his revolver, placed it on the table in front of him, and wrote a summation of his misdeeds. At the bottom of the ledger, which he had totaled up his illegal borrowings, he wrote, "A great debt, who can pay"? And he determined that at the stroke of midnight, he would die. As the evening wore on, the young soldier grew drowsy and eventually fell asleep.
That night, Tsar Nicholas I, as was sometimes his custom, was making the rounds of this particular barracks. Seeing a light, he stopped and looked in, and knowing this young man, he recognized him immediately. And noting that he was asleep, he looked over his shoulder and saw the ledger book and realized all that had taken place. He was about to awaken this young man and put him under arrest when his eye fastened on the young man's words at the bottom of the page, "A great debt, who can pay"?
Suddenly, with a surge of grace and mercy, he reached over, he wrote one word at the bottom of the ledger, and he slipped out. The young man was sleeping fitfully, and he awoke suddenly in the middle of the night, glanced at the clock and realized it was long after midnight. He reached for his revolver, but as he did, his eye fell on the ledger. He saw something that he had not seen before. There was his writing, "A great debt, who can pay"? But underneath was the word the Tsar had written, "Nicholas I, He could pay".
He was dumbfounded. He did not understand how it could have gotten there. He must have made a mistake. He went to the safe where material bore the signature of Tsar, and it was the Tsar's signature. He said to himself, "He must have come when I was asleep. He has seen the book, he knows all, and he's willing to forgive me". And the next morning a messenger came from the palace with the amount of money needed to meet the deficit only the Tsar could pay, and the Tsar did pay.
In the same way, only the Lord Jesus Christ was able to pay our debt to God. We look at the moral requirement of God's righteousness spelled out in his book, and we compare it with our own tawdry performance and we ask a question, "A great debt, who can pay"? And the Lord Jesus Christ steps forward and signs his name to our ledger. Only Jesus can pay, and that's why he came to this earth at Christmastime, to begin the process of signing his name at the bottom of your ledger, to forgive all your sin so that you can be free from that sin and forgiven and go to heaven to spend eternity with God.
So, let me ask you this question, have you submitted to him? Have you asked him to come and live within your life and be your Savior? It is the greatest decision you will ever make. It will change your life from this moment on. You will never be the same. And it is the most incredible way to celebrate Christmas, to accept the gift of Jesus Christ, which God gave. That gift was given at Christmas. Why don't you receive that gift?