Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The 12th Day of Christmas

We had a very good Christmas and New Year's with the family; but now it's over.  Our young adult children are going about their lives.  The house is returning to its quiet empty-nest self.  On Monday we took down our Christmas tree.  The decorations are packed away--this time they're packed away with other things that will be moved to another home.*

I'm not sad to see the end of the Christmas season.  It's not just because, with the rest of the world, I heard Christmas songs for more than a month, and it's not because I was tired of Christmas advertising, though I didn't mind the end of those things...  I'm not a scrooge; I like giving gifts and I enjoy Christmas carols and Christmas family gatherings--but there's a way in which even the Christian focus on Christmas can get us off track spiritually.  Let me explain...

You've noticed, perhaps, how little the Bible tells us about the early life of Jesus.  There are a couple chapters in Matthew and Luke of a prophetic sort.  There are genealogies and few short accounts of Jesus' early life, including a dozen paragraphs about events around the birth, but the Bible quickly moves on to the time when Jesus was about 30 years old.

This coming weekend I'll be preaching on one of the Bible's accounts of Jesus' baptism (Matthew 3:13-17).  Jesus baptism is traditionally remembered on this Sunday only two weeks after Christmas.  Maybe you've never known or noticed that, but for those of us who pay attention to such things as the church year or the lectionary readings, or if you've ever read the first chapters of Matthew or Luke, it's noteworthy that the Gospels don't follow a normal biographical format.  In Matthew's gospel there's a leap of almost 30 years from the last verse of chapter two to the first verse of chapter three.

Because the Bible is as God wants it to be, we should be able to learn something from this.  Here's what I've been thinking and praying about during the last few days...  Let me know what you think about this.  Could there be a special reason God wants to move us quickly past "the baby in the manger"?
  • Too much attention given to the "Christ Child" can make us think of Jesus as someone who needs our help.  Putting our focus on "the baby in the manger" can make us think that we are somehow the strong and capable ones.  We can become confused and think of Jesus as a like a child who may be good but who certainly has no power or authority.
I think Christmas, over-emphasized, can lead us to put way too much attention on our own good deeds and give them too much importance.  I think, at Christmas time, as we focus on the baby, and as we imagine we might have done for him if we had been there, or what we might do for God now in caring for the "least of these," we can forget about our sinfulness.  We can forget that sin and selfishness and pride infect even the best human good deeds.  We can, in this season especially, put to the side the absolute need for us human beings to be submitted and obedient to Him alone and imagine we can somehow do good on our own.

Perhaps that's why there isn't much about Jesus early life in the Bible.  It's not until he is baptized at age 30 that the mission of God in Christ gets going.  Finally then the real work of God in Christ has its start.  And it's clear that, in the Bible, that everything about Jesus' life leads up to his last week of life.  In the Bible there is so much more, maybe a hundred times more about the last week of Jesus life than about the first thirty years

Maybe it's no mistake that the earliest Christians did not celebrate Christmas at all.  Christmas only came into being as a Christian holiday two or three hundred years after Jesus completed his work in the cross and resurrection, on his ascension into glory and on his promise to come again.  The early Christians put way more emphasis on the celebration of Jesus saving work on the cross and in the resurrection than they did on his birth.**  They knew Jesus as the one who had defeated sin, death and the power of the devil!  They knew they were weak, in and of themselves, and if they needed strength to do good, that it could come only from Jesus himself through the Holy Spirit.  If they did anything good, it was always done in his power and in his strength alone.

It's okay to celebrate Christmas, but not if we over do it, and certainly not if we think of Jesus as weak or mild or needing our help.  Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords!  He does not need anything from us.  In our relationship with God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, we are always the ones in need, and God is always the one who gives.  We read this very clearly in Acts 17:25 and we can see it over and over again in the rest of God's Word.  God is in charge.  God is strong.  We follow.  We receive.  He is the one who blesses us.

So, let's move on. Yes, Jesus did come into this world as a little baby, and yes he grew and matured and did who knows what in his early life. But God jolts us through his word, yanking us forward to the time when Jesus was ready to begin the work he alone would do for our good--and for the salvation of the world.

*  We'll most likely be in the Cokato parsonage until about the time we must move (Feb. 22).  We are so thankful that we still have a place to live.  And we are thankful that our Lord and His precious promises are always here to bear us up.
** Christmas as a Christian holiday only came into being only a couple hundred years after Jesus' birth.  It may, in fact, have been connected with old Roman holidays, though that is debated even today.

Added Jan. 13 - I revised this post and used it as the basis of notes for a sermon that I preached on January 9, 2011 in Wisconsin.  Click here to download a pdf of those notes.


  1. Thanks for this message, Pastor Steve. I have never heard this perspective before and I have been ruminating on it since I read it. Blessings to you in the new year! Hope to see you at camp this summer!
    Cryss Quanbeck

  2. Thanks Cryss! Wendy Berthelsen is trying to get a group together to come to camp this summer I know, and we'd love to go along, but our niece is getting married in Colorado the week they're planning to go. Bummer. As to the perspective I blogged about last week, if you'd like, I could send you my notes from the sermon as I preached it on Sunday, Jan. 9 in Wisconsin. Don't have a recording though ;-)

  3. I would be interested in seeing those notes, if its no trouble for you. cryssq at yahoo dot com is the best way to get things to me. I know summer is a busy time! A trip to Colorado sounds fun! Maybe you will find your way to Okoboji another time :) I enjoy reading your blog, thanks for taking the time to write it!

  4. Cryss, you're welcome! I hope we can come down. We love OLBC! I'll email you the notes now and later I'll try to post them for others who'd like them.

  5. The notes I used to preach Jan. 9 can now be downloaded above at the end of the original post.