Several weeks ago at the peak of my favorite season, I took a walk with my three year old nephew and inhaled deeply – that earthy scent of the woods in November. “Do you have a favorite season?” I asked him.
With no need hesitancy whatsoever he immediately replied, “I don’t really like winter, but I LOVE Christmas!”
Yes, Calvin. Christmas was always my favorite too. The first Saturday in December, the more mature and responsible of our clan traipsed through the woods, down the sidewalk in the borough of our little town, across Main Street, and entered the doors of the local fire hall where the annual flea market held, we knew, hidden treasures. Our task was to find just the right treasure for each member of our family.
We dispersed amongst the vendors’ tables, careful to avoid another sibling within the same row. Somehow we returned home with our secrets still secret.
A tree had been chosen, with much input from little people, by the patriarch of this brood. An entire afternoon’s work, this group went out to visit two, perhaps three tree farms to discover the one. Sometimes snow would fall, and Dad’s giddiness bubbled over and rubbed off on his children, and all was right with the world. Lights and trinkets were hung, some old, some new, some handmade, some re-made. It was glorious.
After all the hustle and bustle of Advent, Christmas Eve finally arrived. Sleeping bags were unrolled in the living room by the tree, Dad’s guitar strings sang with his fingers into the extended hours of the night, then several rounds of “goodnight” and giggles and shushing ushered in the silence and the million minutes it took to fall asleep because of the exhilarating sounds of more wrapping coming from Mom’s bedroom. (I don’t think she truly ever got to sleep on all those Christmas Eves.)
We woke before dawn, not being allowed to wake Mom and Dad before a certain time. We played rounds of Uno take up time. There were hilarious conversations between brothers guessing what was in their stockings. There were Frosted Flakes offered one morning a year which were gold on the tongue as opposed to our normal Grape Nuts or Cheerios. There was the delight of passing out those carefully purchased treasures while the Manheim Steamroller cassette tape reeled in the background. There was love. There was cheer. There was joy.
Ah yes, Christmas. The most wonderful time of the year. It’s around this time that we find ourselves hanging stockings, hanging lights, baking cookies, licking batter from our fingers, and all the while whistling little familiar tunes that we’ve heard sung our entire lives. And here we are tonight, gathered to hear some of this Christmas music and sing some of these carols again.
Why do we sing Christmas carols? Well, we sing to celebrate what has already happened. We sing to remember what he has done! Hark! The herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king! Here is the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay, the holy infant so tender and mild, the babe, the son of Mary.
But we know there’s much more to it than sleeping in heavenly peace. After all, there’s a reason the Son of God became a son of man.
Listen to what we sing:
- Long lay the world in sin and error, pining.
- Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free.
- O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.
Tim Keller says, “Christmas is telling you that you couldn’t get to heaven on your own. God had to come to you.” And come He did. So we sing!
- God rest you merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay, Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day, To save us all from Satan’s pow’r when we were gone astray.
- Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
- God and sinners reconciled!
- Shall we still dread God’s displeasure, Who to save, freely gave his most cherished Treasure? To redeem us, he hath given His own Son from the throne of his might in heaven.
For some of us, we truly delight in this joyous season! There is the magic of a white Christmas, the soft reflection of lights on a rain spattered window, a mug of hot chocolate by a fireplace, kind words between siblings and for a few sweet moments there is peace on earth! There are quivers full of children, a first candle on a birthday cake, a 100th candle on a birthday cake, true love, a 100% on an AP essay, a brand new driver’s license in hand, a really great book, a new house.
But… maybe you don’t have childhood Christmas memories like mine and you don’t even want to hang any lights, and there are still Christmas trees that shed half their needles on the floor when you first bring it home from the tree farm, and children who argue over which tree is the tree and someone comes home a bit cross. There are still sniffles and fevers, loss of hearing, loss of eyesight, loss of memory, cancer, seizures, disability, depression, fatigue, aging parents, aging self, not enough daylight, a friend who moves far away, car accidents, the empty chair at the table this Thanksgiving, the chair you wish would be empty, empty wombs, empty words, empty hearts, and sin… oh sin…
So why do we sing? Well, we sing to recognize our sadness in this world tainted with sin.
- And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow…
Does that feel like you? Yes, there is sadness, and
- Jesus came to earth to taste our sadness, he whose glories knew no end.
- Thou who wast rich beyond all splendor, all for love’s sake becamest poor.
- He came down to earth from heaven who is God and Lord of all, and his shelter was a stable, and his cradle was a stall; with the poor, and mean, and lowly, lived on earth our Savior holy.
- Mild he lays his glory by.
- Nails, spears shall pierce him through The cross be born for me, for you.
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay became a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
I have a picture from a few Christmases ago. My brother sits on the sofa near a woman, the wife of another brother, with my daughter wedged in the middle. A caption reads “(Not a real family)”.
If someone had taken a snapshot of Mary and Joseph and Jesus, perhaps it could have been captioned “(Not a real family)”. Or maybe that’s just what everyone was thinking as they walked down the street. After all, Mary had never actually slept with her husband Joseph. She had never actually seen the face of the baby’s Father. Joseph pretty much adopted this baby that his wife was bearing even though she was apparently a virgin. (I don’t exactly envision Joseph sitting on the front stoop, smoking a cigar with his buddies who are smacking him on the back with congratulatory remarks, like, “Atta boy, Joe!” Or “Way to go, Buddy!”) Come to think of it, the baby himself had actually been sent away from heaven by his Father.
Not exactly the warm fuzzy picture you want to wish for anyone on his day of birth.
But sadness does not have to mean hopelessness.
And that is exactly what makes this birthday so absolutely wonderful and breathtaking. We wouldn’t want this to be a “normal” birth story, or a “normal” family.
Immanuel – “God with us” – was no “normal” man. Who else was born with the purpose to save His people from their sin? To shine a Light into the dark world? To help those of us who are single moms, lonely dads, adopted children, children who are waiting to be adopted, hurting spouses, couples who yearn for a child, people who yearn for a spouse, widows, widowers, people who have had lots of lovers but have never known love? To redeem those of us with unmanageable mortgages, addictions, angry children, no jobs, no joy? (Maybe God had some insight as to what “normal” would look like in 2019. After all, He sympathizes with us in our weakness, yes?)
God was born. And because of it, a “Real Family” was created. A family in which He is the brother of all who believe that “the Word became flesh and lived for a while among us.” And if you know Him as your Brother, you know His Father as your Father.
As I have grown into the body of an adult, I still love Christmas. But I understand a little more that a Christmas tree means nothing without another tree, one that is shaped as a cross and has no shining lights, but the shine of blood dripping under rusty nails. And it is erected in the Spring, not amidst the fallen snow.
Jesus came to taste our sadness so that we can feast on his joy.
So I better understand why the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay became a man of sorrows on that tree of affliction, but where, O death is now thy sting? as he arose a victor and with his saints he now reigns forever. Those third and fourth verses of Christmas carols can be sung louder than the first, because, of course, Easter is what Christmas is all about.
From Hebrews: Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Somehow Jesus’ joy was greater because of his suffering.
Do you think Jesus gets excited at Easter, like a little kid on Christmas Eve? I can’t wrap my mind around the joy he must have remembering that day. Of course his joy is every day, but this day must be absolutely amazing!
And if this Jesus is your Savior, then his joy is your joy, because he tells us in John 14, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am,” and Psalm 16:11 promises that we will be filled with joy in his presence.
Why do we sing? We sing the gospel, the good news, the story of redemption in these carols. We sing of the joy, we sing of the sorrow, and we sing of the hope that is to come!
- Dearest Lord, thee will I cherish. Though my breath fail in death, Yet I shall not perish, But with thee abide forever There on high, in that joy Which can vanish never.
- No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.
- Thus rejoicing, free from sorrow, praises voicing, greet the morrow…
David Mathis writes: “You have sorrow now,” says Jesus, “but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22). When we see him face to face, our joy will finally be full and unencumbered. And it will be indomitable. No one will take your joy from you.
So go ahead and string up those lights. Pop a cork. O Come, All Ye Faithful, and hear the tidings of comfort and joy. Take your cue from the angels and sing! Come and see what the Lord has done! Wait and see what the Lord will do. Because some things are worth celebrating. And some things are absolutely worth waiting for!
Originally written and spoken for a gathering of women at Brick Lane Community Church for Christmas 2019.