The Danger And Glory Of The Familiar

We apologize, we don’t have an audio recording of today’s sermon. However, we do have this transcript.

Luke 2:1-7 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Our family has been reading Paul Tripp’s new Christmas devotional “Come Let Us Adore Him”. When I first read the introduction the following lines jumped off the page for me.

I’ve thought a lot about the danger of familiarity in our lives as the children of God. It is good to be familiar with the story of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It means that God has met you by grace. It means that he has opened the eyes of your heart to what, without him, you would not see or understand. He has drawn you close to his side. He has pulled back the curtain and shown you the deep mysteries of his redeeming plan. He has blessed you with the presence of his Spirit, who continues to illumine his truth for you. You are familiar with the story of the gospel of Jesus Christ because the love of God has been lavished on you.

But familiarity often does bad things to us. Often when we become familiar with things, we begin to take them for granted. When we are familiar with things, we tend to quit examining them. Often when we are familiar with things, we quit noticing them. When we are familiar with things, we tend not to celebrate them as we once did. Familiarity tends to rob us of our wonder. And here’s what’s important about this: what has captured the wonder of our hearts will control the way we live.

Sadly, many of us aren’t gripped by the stunningly magnificent events and truths of the birth of Jesus anymore. Sadly, many of us are no longer gripped by wonder as we consider what this story tells us about the character and plan of God. Sadly, many of us are no longer humbled by what the incarnation of Jesus tells us about ourselves. We walk by the garden of the incarnation, but we don’t see the roses of grace anymore. Our eyes have gone lazy and our hearts have grown cold.

Even if you didn’t grow up in a Christian home, odds are you grew up with at least a basic understanding of the Christmas story and at least a sentimental celebrating of “Christmas”. That is to say, most of us have heard the claims and been to the parties for as long as we’ve been alive. As a result, and as Tripp noted, on a practical level, familiarity has set in and we have lost an appropriate sense of perspective and appreciation, awe and wonder, gratitude and gladness concerning the incarnation of Jesus and all that flowed from it.

It is my aim in this sermon to remind you of a number of the truly awesome aspects of the Christmas story, help explain why we struggle to rightly appreciate the story in light of its glory, and then offer a few suggestions about how to regain it. Please pray with me that God would be pleased to use this to (re)ignite your appreciation for God’s amazing (Christmas) grace and with that (re)capture the wonder of our hearts.

Look again at the sermon text. On the surface there’s not much there to inspire awe. In fact, if all we knew of the Christmas story was what’s recorded in these few verses, we’d have a pretty underwhelming story. I suppose there’s some drama in the fact that the couple was with child before they were fully married. There’s some intrigue in the fact that they had to travel a long distance near the end of the woman’s pregnancy. And it’s kind of sad that they had to place their newborn in a lowly manger. But none of those things are exactly newsworthy, let alone worthy of the adoration of all heaven and earth.

As you know, though, that isn’t the entire story. Additionally…

  1. The baby of this story was conceived in scandal; not in that conception was by Joseph and out of wedlock, but in that conception was by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:1-18; Luke 1:27, 35). This baby was absolutely unique in his origin in that he had no human father. His father was God.
  2. Because this baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit he was born without Adam’s sin (the sinful nature present in every other person since Adam). What’s more, he lived his entire life without sin and in a manner entirely pleasing to God (2 Corinthians 5:21); the only man to ever do so.
  3. Before the baby of Luke 2:7 was even born, his mere presence in Mary’s womb caused John the Baptist to jump in Elizabeth’s womb (Luke 1:41). In utero his uniqueness and power could not be missed.
  4. This baby was named Jesus according to the command of an angel of the Lord. More than just his name, though, the angel spoke to Joseph concerning the baby’s birth, origin, power, life and nature (Matthew 1:20-21, 2:13, 2:19-22; Luke 1:28, 1:32-33). The angel even said that Jesus was the Son of God and heir to the throne of David, from which he would reign forever. The events surrounding the birth of Jesus and the proclamations concerning the nature of Jesus left no room to think of him as any ordinary human.
  5. In his birth, life, and death Jesus fulfilled many, many prophesies made hundreds (even thousands) of years before His birth (Matthew 1:22, 2:15, 2:17). That is to say, in ways entirely outside of his control, as well as in ways he seemed to intentionally pursue and assume, Jesus was the unique answer to many of God’s promises. For example, God orchestrated, through Caesar Augustus, a world-wide census which brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, the city of David, for the birth of Jesus in order to fulfill the scriptures (Luke 2:1-5).
  6. Angels of the Lord appeared in glory and gave instructions to shepherds who were near the stable where Jesus was born (Luke 2:9-14). These same angels sang in worship at the coming of this newborn king! “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” Similarly, there was a moving star that led the gentile Magi to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem in order that they might worship him (Matthew 2:2, 9-11). God had previously opened the womb of Elizabeth in order to give her a child whose purpose was to proclaim and explain the birth and ministry of Jesus (Mark 1:2-3). A man named Simeon was told by the Holy Spirit that Jesus was the Christ (Luke 2:25-35). Indeed, the absolute remarkableness of the Christmas story—no matter how familiar—must not be missed. For truly the very heavens and heavenly beings conspired to announce and celebrate the birth of Jesus.
  7. Jesus’ birth was good news of great joy for all people. For he came not only as a man, not only as sinless, not only as king, not only with heavenly pronouncement, but also as Christ the Savior (Luke 2:11). Jesus came not only to be an example for all mankind and to rule over all mankind, he also came to rescue mankind from his sin. Through Jesus, God the Father was pleased “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” The result is that we “who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled [us] in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present [us] holy and blameless and above reproach before him…” (Colossians 1:20-22). Familiar or not, the fact that the child born on Christmas is our only way to God must be awe inspiring.
  8. The Jesus of Christmas created the universe before He was born (John 1:1-3) and has upheld the universe ever since. “By him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities- all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17).
  9. The Jesus who was born in Bethlehem was God in the flesh (John 1:1, 14). Colossians 1:15-19 He is the image of the invisible God… 19 [and] in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…”. As we know well at Grace ,every birth is special in its own way. Christmas is different. It is a celebration of the birth of God.
  10. There will be another Christmas—not where Jesus is reborn, but where he returns again to judge the living and the dead (2 Timothy 4:1), to finally and completely restore all the effects of sin (Revelation 21:4), and gather his people—those who hoped wholly in him—into everlasting joy in the presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Until then he remains at the Father’s right side, having risen from the dead, advocating on behalf of all who hope in him. That’s Christmas.

I invite you, once again, to step back for a moment and contemplate these things. Contemplate the extraordinary, outrageous nature of these claims. Contemplate the utter ridiculousness of allowing ourselves to becoming numb to these things.

And yet I know most of you well enough to know that you already know and believe and love all of these things. You know they’re true and awesome. But let’s be honest, none of us have our hearts stirred like we should by them. None of us respond in ways that really make sense in light of their magnitude. What is it, then, that keeps us from rightly understanding, appreciating, and celebrating such marvelous things? Being too familiar might account for some of it, but it seems like there must be something more at work against us.

The answer is sin. Though we are immediately and entirely forgiven of our sin when we first trust in Jesus, we are not immediately and entirely freed from its effects. Though our conversion marks the beginning of God’s removal of sin’s pull on us and restoration of its deterioration of us, the process will not be complete until we are in the presence of God. The practical result is that things like infinitely glorious things like Christmas don’t stir us as they ought. The practical result is that we struggle to keep whatever awe we gain. The practical result is that we allow ourselves to entirely miss the point of so much of life, including Christmas.
There are three main ways that sin gets in the way of responding rightly to Christmas. If we are to approach Christmas differently, then, in a manner more honoring to God, we must understand the tactics of, and make war against, the sin that is constantly making war against us.

  1. Sin blinds. God saves us by opening our eyes enough to see his holiness, our sin, and Jesus as the only savior. Before we are saved we are entirely spiritually blind. When we are saved we receive spiritual vision, but not perfect spiritual vision. Full spiritual sight will not be ours until heaven. This means that whatever amount of glory we see, it is always, only partial. This is both frustrating and encouraging. It’s frustrating because we can hear and read the story of Jesus’ birth, know in our minds that it is amazing beyond description, and still fail to have it reach the deep recesses of our hearts. It’s encouraging, though, because it means that the amazing glory we do see (and it truly is amazing), is only the beginning.

    I can’t help but to think of the scene in the movie National Treasure where they finally make it to the treasure cave and see treasure beyond their wildest imagination; only to light enough torches to realize that what they first saw was only about 10% of the total treasure.

    Be frustrated that sin is actively keeping you from seeing the full glory of Christmas, but rejoice in the fact that the great amount you can see is just scratching the surface.

  2. Sin blinds, but sin also causes us to forget. What’s worse than struggling to see slivers of glory? Quickly forgetting the slivers you have seen. This is largely what Tripp was talking about in the quote I read earlier. The continued effects of sin on our lives mean that we are always in danger of forgetting glory, of becoming so familiar with the glories of Christmas that we forget how awesome they are. We must fight to see glory and to keep seeing glory; to recognize glory and to remember glory.
  3. Sin attracts us to counterfeit glory. What’s worse than quickly forgetting the slivers of glory we’ve seen? Being tricked by sin into thinking that sin is glorious. We were made for glory. We will always, therefore, seek it out. Only Christians can truly see it, but even Christians are easily attracted to fake glory. We see the glory of God in Christmas, we celebrate it from the deep recesses of our hearts, and then we forget and grow cold to it, we long for that feeling to return, and so we seek it out again only to “find it” in places it isn’t really to be found—like presents and nostalgia and “Christmas” parties that are entirely unrelated to the significance of the birth of Jesus and kids laughter and old songs and church plays and…

How do we hear of the realities of Christmas (the ones we saw earlier) and miss glory or forget glory of look for other glory? The answer is sin. As Christians we are forgiven of it, no longer enslaved to it, and certain to be entirely separated from it (eventually), but for now we still struggle with being taunted and confused and hindered by its lingering effects.

In light of all of this, what do we do? Let me suggest seven things that you and I might (must?) do if we are to grow in our ability to be rightly awed and therein rightly honor God in our Christmas celebrations.

  1. Acknowledge your sin and its effects. Realize and confess the pull of sin away from seeing and savoring the grace and glory of Christmas. That is, after all, why Christmas happened in the first place!
  2. Remember that Christmas is the day we celebrate Jesus’ birthday. This means that Christmas is not ultimately about you or your kids or your family traditions or the holiday spirit or time off of work or school or any of the other things that it has become for so many; it is ultimately about the glory of God in the incarnation of His Son, Jesus Christ, who was born to die for the sins of man.
  3. Think carefully about family gatherings. I’m not by any means saying that family gatherings around Christmas are necessarily bad. But I am saying that they’re not necessarily good either. They certainly can be bad if they distract from the centrality of Christ in Christmas. However, they certainly can be good when our gatherings serve to amplify the significance of Jesus’ incarnation…any truly Christian celebration will be festive and grand and special and corporate as well.
  4. Think carefully about family traditions. Similarly, this does not mean that family traditions are necessarily bad. But, again, it does not mean that they are necessarily good either. Certainly some of them are bad and those ones should be done away with. However, certainly some of them are excellent as well and should be kept up for generations to come. There is something decidedly Christian about continuing good traditions year after year (as long as each new generation learns the heart behind them and not just the practice).
  5. Think carefully about giving gifts. Again, this does not mean that giving gifts around Christmas is necessarily bad. But it also doesn’t mean that it is necessarily good. It’s certainly bad when it teaches us or our children to treasure presents more than Jesus. And it’s certainly bad when we hijack Jesus’ birthday in order to indulge ourselves the things of this world. But gift giving certainly can be good when the gifts are given with the ultimate aim of magnifying the worth of Christ to the recipient.
  6. Because the Christmas story is so extraordinary our response to it must be extraordinary as well. If Christmas is not a reason to celebrate in an absolutely unique way, I don’t know what is! Grace, let’s get creative in our celebrations. Let’s make our celebrations bigger and more special than any other. Let’s make sure that we spend Christmas and the time surrounding it celebrating in a way that demonstrates that we believe it to be true.
  7. Remember that everything you do (the songs you sing and the way that you spend your money and the places that you go and the traditions that you take part in and the food that you eat and the gifts that you give and…) speaks to your view of the gospel. Everything that we do in the name of Christmas speaks of our view of God’s glory, our purpose in life, our sin, hell, the cross, faith, etc. Please ask yourself what you want to be communicating about the gospel to those around you. Ask yourself if you are taking part in this for the purpose of celebrating Jesus’ coming? Ask yourself if this will this likely draw your heart (and the heart of the people with you) toward or away from the glories of Jesus’ coming? Ask yourself if Jesus would be honored if he were present?

The idea here is simple: we must celebrate intentionally. The things we do must be on purpose. Whatever you do, make sure that it has a godly and appropriate purpose in light of what Christmas really is. Please be willing, should you recognize a Christless aspect of your normal Christmas celebration, to do away with it this year and replace it with something full of Christ.

During a sermon in London in 1933 (contained in a book called, God Is in the Manger) Dietrich Bonhoeffer said these fitting words,

In [a few days], we shall celebrate Christmas and now for once let us make it really a festival of Christ in our world…It is not a light thing to God that every year we celebrate Christmas and do not take it seriously. His word holds and is certain. When he comes in his glory and power into the world in the manger, he will put down the mighty from their seats, unless ultimately, ultimately they repent.

May it be so among us, Grace. Amen.