The Day After Christmas
It starts, sometimes, as early as August. You know what I mean - the Christmas season. The first signs begin to appear in the stores: Christmas trees, bows and wrappings, garlands and wreaths, decorations of all kinds.
The crescendo begins to build, gradually at first. Then, after Halloween, it turns into a roar, barely nodding an acknowledgment to Thanksgiving, as Black Friday sends shoppers into a feeding frenzy. Once more the nation descends into its annual orgy of materialism and avarice, dragging you along, even though last year you vowed to mend your ways.
Before it's all done, you are fed up to the point where you could scream with the constant bombardment of advertisements and commercials telling you what that "special someone" really wants and how you can get it for them with just a little something down and so much per month for the rest of your life.
With an inward groan, you ascend to the attic, descend into the basement, or rummage in the closets to retrieve a pile of boxes filled with lights, ornaments, and various and sundry other decorations which you then place in numerous locations both inside and outside your home, wondering how in the world you managed to collect all this stuff over the years and what will your kids do with it when you are gone.
Every evening for at least a month as you sit down to relax with a little mindless television, you are forced to click through an innumerable host of sappy movies and holiday specials totally unrelated to the real subject of Christmas.
Between Halloween and New Year's you are caught up in the merry-go-round of parties and family gatherings where you stuff yourself stupid and add another five pounds to the box car you already are carrying and need to unload.
And then there are the Christmas carols that assault your ears everywhere you go until you think that if you hear one more rendition of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer you will lose control and end up the lead story on the evening news.
Christmas in America!
We are told constantly that it is "the most wonderful time of the year," as we are confronted relentlessly with images straight from a Norman Rockwell painting, harking back to a time that seemed slower, friendlier, warmer in spirit. Each Christmas beckons to us with a siren song of great expectations that stirs chords deep within, an emotional longing for something of meaning and substance, something that will fill our lives with warmth and love, peace and fulfillment, meaning and purpose.
And so we reach December 25th.
That's when we fall off the cliff.
The day after Christmas it is almost as if all that went before never happened. The songs, the food, the gatherings, the TV programs, all suddenly come to an end. We are left with more stuff we don't need, smaller bank accounts, larger debts, that extra five pounds, decorations that you might get around to taking down sometime in the spring, and a sense that Christmas isn't really all it's cracked up to be; there has got to be something more, something you have missed. The day after Christmas can be a really tough day.
The second chapter of Luke's Gospel takes us back to that first Christmas, if you will, the night Jesus was born. We are all familiar with the story of a very pregnant young Mary, heavy with the child miraculously conceived in her womb, with Joseph her husband, the soon-to-be stepfather to the Son of God, being forced to make the long journey to Bethlehem where they could find no suitable accommodations.
The images of the stable are etched in our minds from constant re-tellings of this ancient story, along with the appearance of the angels announcing to humble shepherds that the Savior had been born in Bethlehem.
For hundreds of years the people of Israel had heard the promises of the Redeemer, prayed for his coming, hoped to see his arrival. But the hopes had faded from breathless anticipation into dry dogma, leaving the average Jew mechanically acknowledging the expectation, but inwardly doubtful of its eventual fufillment.
And then that night came.
What a glorious experience it must have been for all involved!
Though suffering the pangs of childbirth, Mary must have felt a sense of wonder. Joseph, ever-faithful and obedient to God, may himself have been struck with a sense of awe. The angels sang with celestial jubilation, announcing to terrified shepherds a message for the ages. Those humble men, forever nameless in our world, left the sheep in their charge to journey to Bethlehem to see this wonder for themselves and then spoke of it to everyone who would listen. It was a glorious night.
But then came the day after.
The day after, Mary and Joseph were parents. There was a new mouth to feed. Mary had to learn to be a mother and care for the infant that now lay in her arms. Joseph had to find a suitable place to live with his expanded family, not to mention he had to find work and provide for those under his care.
The heavens closed up once again and became silent. No more did the angels light up the dark night sky and sing anthems of praise in the company of men.
The shepherds returned to their flocks and faded from history, found only in the story of Jesus' birth recorded in Luke's Gospel.
Nativity met reality. Life went on.
That's how it is today.
We tend to hype Christmas to the point of unreality, creating expectations that it cannot bear. No wonder suicides increase this time of the year. People are looking for a holiday to fill the emptiness of their lives. When that fails, they feel that life itself is a fraud not worth living and choose, sadly, to bring it to an end. They, and we, have missed the point.
But what is the point? What lessons should we take from all this?
There are three.
First, Christ coming into your life will not exempt you from life's hardships and demands. Some people think that receiving Jesus should put them on Easy Street - health, wealth, and prosperity! But Joseph and Mary still had to work for their daily bread. The shepherds still had to tend their sheep. Jesus himself grew up a working man, a craftsman, and spoke often of suffering. Then he went and died on the cross to save us from our sins.
The Apostles themselves were mistreated and killed. Followers of Jesus throughout history have suffered for nothing more than just trusting in Christ alone as Savior and Lord.
If you trust in Christ, you still must live your life. But you are not left alone to your own devices. God is with you. You may not feel his presence in some mystical or emotional way, but then we are commanded to live by faith, not feelings. God will guide you, he will strengthen you, and he will help you face both the daily demands and the extraordinary circumstances. Yet, while he will empower you, still you must choose, you must run the race, you must fight the fight. And through God's daily supply, you will be able to endure and overcome to the end. And the destination is worth the journey.
Second, the silence of heaven does not mean God is not involved. For centuries the world waited for a promise to be fulfilled. Four hundred years had passed since the last prophet spoke. Empires rose and fell, civilizations came and went. Generations were born, lived, and died. Some clung tenaciously to the promise, but others were asking, "Where is God? Why doesn't he do something like he used to do? The world is in a mess; my life is a mess. Why doesn't God do something?"
The answer is that God did do something. God has been involved actively in the world since the very beginning. But he often works behind the scenes, out of sight. He designed and executed the plan of redemption to save us from our sins - from death and hell, from bondage to passion - and sent Jesus to the cross to save us.
Now, as Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, the Holy Spirit has come to live in the heart and life of every one who will put his trust in Christ - to make us alive, to clothe us with Christ's righteousness, and to give us eternal life in the ages to come in a new heaven and new earth. And as we face life's demands and hardships he is right there with us to see us through. He is more than sufficient for all our needs. He is the God who is there.
Third, Christ's coming changes everything. Joseph, Mary, the Shepherds - all were changed that night. Never again would their lives be the same. Oh, they would go back to their lives - home, hearth, workshop, flocks in the fields. But while their circumstances had not changed, they had been changed in the midst of their circumstances. Forever would Mary and Joseph be transformed by the Child who now lay in Mary's lap. Never would the shepherds forget the wonder and mystery of that night, and often would speak of it to others.
But what about you and me? Has the coming of Christ made a difference for us? Indeed, it has. He has come to give us the gift of himself - to give us all that he is and all he has done.
We have failed miserably in so many respects in our lives. Our sins are undeniable, alienating us from the God who made us, leaving us guilty of violating his divine Law, spiritually dead, bound for the torments of eternal damnation, and totally powerless to do anything about it. So, God sent Jesus.
Jesus lived that perfect life, where we had failed. He died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, a penalty impossible for us to satisfy. He was raised from the grave to break the power of death, which held us in its grip. He returned to heaven, where he speaks for us to the Father. He gives us the Holy Spirit, to make us alive and to transform us into what he created us to be. And he will one day return to take us home to live in his presence for all the ages to come.
Does this all mean that when you receive Christ everything becomes hunky-dory? No. Your life may look pretty much the same. You still have to get up and go to work. You still have to pay the bills and buy the groceries. You still have to deal with family, friends, and co-workers. And you still will have problems and struggles in life. But while all these things remain the same, you are different, and growing more different each day.
Your sins are all gone, forever washed away in the blood of Christ.
You have a new life, an eternal one.
You have a new relationship with God, as your loving heavenly Father.
You have a new hope, a home in heaven for all eternity, when you leave this world.
You have a new power, to say "No" to temptation and sin, and "Yes" to what is right and good, no more a slave to your passions and lusts.
Everything has changed forever.
And that can enable you to face Christmas and the day after.