‘Twas the Day After Christmas
December 26, 1999
Our text tells us how to celebrate Christmas. In its most literal sense, this passage describes the various responses of people to the birth of Christ. In his sermon on this passage, Charles Spurgeon points out that certain activities fit certain periods of the year. In our own culture Christmas means holly and mistletoe, parties, gifts, carols, eggnog, big meals, a decorated tree, and last-minute shopping.
While I would venture to say that these things are not objectionable in themselves, none of them (with the exception of giving gifts) has anything to do with the circumstances surrounding the birth of Christ. No one knows for certain when Jesus was born. It might have been December 25 but there is no way to be sure. And it doesn’t matter since the New Testament doesn’t say anything about it.
The principle of celebrating the coming of Christ to the world is certainly a good idea. Some Christians frown on Christmas for various reasons and some even oppose it altogether. It is easy to decry the commercialization of Christmas and to bemoan the Christmas parties that cater more to drunkenness than to anything relating to the birth of Jesus. But bad as those things are, we who are Christians ought to enjoy this season of the year. It would be a double shame if we allowed the world to take this holiday (a word that really means “Holy Day”) away from us.
Should we celebrate Christmas? By all means! How should we celebrate this great day? The first and most obvious answer is this. You should celebrate Christmas by becoming a Christian. After all, this is why Jesus came to the earth. He was born to be a Savior. And until you can call him “my Savior,” you will never fully understand what Christmas is all about. Many of our carols speak to this point:
Good Christian men, rejoice
With heart and soul and voice
Now ye need not fear the grave;
Jesus Christ was born to save!
Calls you one and calls you all
To gain his everlasting hall.
Christ was born to save!
Christ was born to save!
Would you like to become a Christian? You must give assent to three propositions:
I am a sinner.
As a sinner I need a Savior.
Christ is the Savior I need.
Do you agree with all three statements? Are you willing to trust Christ with all your heart as your Savior and Lord? If you are, you can be saved right now. It’s truly as simple as reaching out in faith and believing what God has said about His Son. Those who trust in Christ are saved forever.
This is where Christmas should begin for all of us. What should be added to this? Our text describes four responses of those who first heard the news that Christ had been born. Each verse tells of a different response, and the four responses together tell us how to celebrate Christmas—not just in December but all year long.
(In looking at this text, I have found great help in Spurgeon’s sermon called “Holy Work for Christmas” and a sermon by James Montgomery Boice called “How to Celebrate Christmas.”)
“When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child” (Luke 2:17).
Luke tells us that the shepherds “spread the word.” Shepherds generally came from the base elements of society. In that day, they were so little trusted that a shepherd’s testimony would not be accepted in a courtroom. Most shepherds were considered on a par with Gypsies, vagrants, and con men. Add to that the fact that shepherds were on the lowest rung of the economic ladder and had little or no formal education. It is entirely possible that these shepherds who heard the angels singing were illiterate.
And that makes the story all the more remarkable. First they heard and saw the spectacular angelic revelation. Then when they went to Bethlehem they discovered the Savior of the world in a feeding-trough in a rough, outdoor barn, perhaps a cave carved out of the rocky hillside. The birth and the revelation didn’t seem to go together. Yet there it was—all from the hand of God.
And consider this. On that night in Bethlehem, outside of Joseph and Mary, the only people in the world who knew Christ had been born were the shepherds. After the “400 silent years,” when God did not speak through prophets, he now speaks through angels to lowly shepherds on a remote hillside outside a tiny Judean village.
It wasn’t a likely way to win the world. Certainly not the way we would have done it. If we had planned it, Jesus would have been born in Jerusalem, to a wealthy family, and attended by the high and mighty. That way no one would doubt that the Son of God had come to earth.
But God’s ways and ours are not the same. He chose to reveal the news to the shepherds first of all. After their initial (and understandable) fear, they responded in faith. They believed the angel, they immediately went to Bethlehem, and they found the baby Jesus. Everything was just as the angel said it would be.
And what did they do then? They told everyone they met what they had seen and heard.
I wonder if we would have been as obedient? Would we have believed? Would we have gone to Bethlehem in the middle of the night? Would we have been as quick to tell the story?
They did what all Christians should do. They told others what they had seen and heard. They “spread the word” about Jesus. When you get down to it, that’s all evangelism is. It’s telling the good news about Jesus Christ to someone else.
What the shepherds did, we all can do. You need no authority, no permission, and no special training to witness for Christ. Simply tell what you know to be true. Talk about Jesus. Tell who he is and what he has done for you. Share your story and then invite others to come to Christ just as you did.
Good news is for sharing. That’s what the shepherds did. That’s what all of us are called to do. This is the first way we can all celebrate Christmas.
“And all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them” (Luke 2:18).
I’m sure that “amazed” is a mild word to describe the reaction of those who heard the shepherds. The story itself would sound incredible—the part about hearing an angelic choir in the middle of the night, not to mention finding the Son of God in a feeding-trough. And to think that God chose lowly shepherds as the first evangelists.
It’s important to understand that there are two kinds of amazement. The first has to do with temporary fascination over an unusual turn of events. If I promised that the Chicago Bulls were going to win the NBA title this year, that would provoke amazed laughter, to say the least. But unlikely as that is, it would not be supernatural in the literal sense. Terrible teams occasionally get lucky and win championships. It’s unusual but not miraculous.
The second kind of amazement we could call “Holy Wonder.” It’s a kind of awe that comes from seeing God at work in the world. In the deepest sense all the acts of God are grounds for holy wonder since everything he does has the stamp of the divine on it. Go all the way back to Genesis and you discover that God created the entire universe out of nothing. He spoke and the stars flew into place. He spoke and the earth took up its orbit. He spoke and the rabbits and the geese and the otters began to scurry about.
God speaks and it happens. He takes a lump of dirt and makes a man. Then he takes a rib and makes a woman. To read Genesis 1-2 is to encounter something that is truly wonderful, that is, full of wonders on every hand.
The wonders continue to the very end of the Bible. Revelation 19 tells us that when Christ returns, he will have written on his robe and on his thigh, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Revelation 19:16). From that text Handel wrote his magnificent “Hallelujah Chorus.” When Christ returns he will establish his kingdom on the earth and all earthly kings will bow before him.
After Gary Olson died in early November, I collected some of his prayers from our worship services and put them together on a cassette tape as a memorial to him. As I listened to those prayers I was struck by the number of times he quoted one particular verse as the beginning of his prayers: “And kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.” I’m sure that some of you will recognize that verse immediately, but I had no idea where it was found. My first guess was Psalms but that proved incorrect. Then I consulted an Internet concordance and discovered that Gary had been quoting Isaiah 52:15. In context, that verse describes the reaction of the kings of the earth when they finally stand before Christ at his Second Coming. All the jabbering and boastful talk will come to an end. The majestic presence of the King of Kings will “shut the mouths” of all earthly kings. In that day what they have not seen will be revealed to them and they will fully understand the truth about Jesus that they have not heard before.
In doing a little more research I discovered that the Contemporary English Version translates Isaiah 52:15 like this: “Kings will be silent as they bow in wonder. They will see and think about things they have not seen or thought about before.” The word “wonder” puts a slightly different spin on it, and brings us back to Luke 2:18. When Christ came the first time, the Magi (the “kings” from the East), brought with them gifts for the newborn “King of the Jews.” Gold because he was a king, frankincense because he was a priest, and myrrh because he was born to die for the sins of the world. Those “kings” bowed in wonder. In the days to come all the “kings” of the earth will bow before the Lord Jesus Christ. They will be silent before the victorious Son of God.
Christmas is indeed a cause for holy wonder. How can it be that God should become a man? How can a King be born in a feeding-trough? How could the world ignore his coming? And what sort of God comes into the world like this?
You ought to be amazed at Christmastime. If you managed to go through this Christmas season without ever pausing to think about the wonder of it all, then you have missed the reason we celebrate Christmas in the first place.
How can we regain that lost sense of wonder? By watching children. Everyone else seems jaded and harried during Christmas. We all have so much to do. But children can still be amazed at the simple story of the Babe of Bethlehem. This was driven home to me as I watched our Christmas program earlier this month. During the final scene, three “kings” dressed in regal robes walked forward to present their gifts to the young child Jesus. During the Saturday night program, as the kings presented their gifts, the child portraying Jesus spontaneously reached out with his hands as if to bless the kings as they knelt before him. It was a magic moment, completely unplanned, yet perfectly in keeping with what might have happened. The audience seemed rapt with wonder, watching the scene unfold.
“A little child shall lead them.” We should teach our children why Jesus came and we should let them teach us the wonder of Christmas all over again.
“But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
The word “treasured” has the idea of counting things up, almost like making a list so that you will not forget anything. It’s what you do at the end of a very busy day and you want to make sure you don’t forget anything that has happened.
The word “pondered” goes deeper than “wondering.” It means to take the events as you have laid them out in your memory and then to go beneath the surface to try to understand what it all means and why it happened the way it did.
No doubt Mary went back to what happened to Zacharias and Elizabeth and the birth of John the Baptist. I’m sure she thought about what Gabriel said, and how Joseph responded when she told him she was pregnant, and then the amazing dream Joseph had. She must have recalled the long, arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and all the events of the birth itself, including the surprise visit of the shepherds. She certainly had plenty to think about. No doubt she continued to wonder why God had chosen her, and I’m sure she pondered what was ahead for her newborn son.
Pondering is hard work, which is why many of us never get around to it. And yet this is the perfect time of the year to do it. What better time than the end of December to ponder what God has been teaching you? To look back over the last 12 months and consider the ways and works of God in your life and in the world around you?
Here is a simple exercise that may help you do some serious pondering before 2000 arrives:
Set aside at least an hour of uninterrupted time.
Find a quiet place. Don’t forget to turn off the TV, the radio, and the CD player.
Begin with a prayer asking God to show you the things he wants you to learn.
Make a “Top Ten” list along these lines: The Top Ten things that have happened in your life in 1999. Those things can be events that happened to you personally or things that happened to others that had a major impact on you. Those things can be good or bad, victories or defeats, it doesn’t matter. Make the category as broad as you like.
As you look at your list, ask God to show you what patterns are at work. What is God teaching you? What lessons seem to come up again and again? What have learned about yourself (positively and negatively) this year?
Now focus on the Lord. What have you learned about God’s character this year?
Ask the Lord for insight as to where he might be leading you in the year to come.
Use all of this as the basis for some personal prayer requests as you enter 2000.
I believe if you do this exercise with an open heart, God will meet you and show you fresh insights that will give you insight about the past and hope for the future.
Mary pondered what God had been doing in her life. That’s a helpful practice for all of us to follow.
“The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told” (Luke 2:20).
The final verse tells us that the shepherds were profoundly changed by what they had experienced. What a difference a day makes. On the day before Christ was born, they were in the fields tending their sheep. On the day after he was born, they were back in the fields once again. Only this time their hearts were filled with praise to God.
James Montgomery Boice points out that the word “glorify” comes from “glory,” which originally meant to have an opinion, then to have a good opinion, and ultimately to estimate the true worth of something. You “glorify” anything when you recognize its true value. To say that the shepherds “glorified” God means that having seen Jesus in the manger, they were overwhelmed by God’s power, his grace, his goodness, his wisdom, and the amazing miracle of the Incarnation. They simply couldn’t stop talking about what they had seen and heard.
And note where they did it. The text does not say that they glorified God in the temple, though that would have been appropriate. No, it says they “returned” to where they had been. Back to the tiring and unappreciated work of caring for sheep. That is, within 48 hours (if not much less than that) they were back where they were when the angel found them in the first place. Having seen the Babe in the manger, it was time to go back to work.
And so they did. And so must we. Christmas eventually ends for all of us. Soon enough we will take down the tree, pack away the ornaments, and either use our gifts or take them back to the store to be exchanged. In a few days the children will go back to school and life will return to normal.
But will we be changed by Christmas? Or will it be business as usual in 2000? For the shepherds, life would never be the same. Oh yes, the work was the same but they were different. They went back with new zeal, new joy, and new love for God in their hearts.
People sometimes wish they could keep the Christmas spirit all year long. They speak of it as if the “magic” of these days comes only once a year. But it depends on what “magic” you are talking about. If you mean the tree and the gifts and the mistletoe and the chestnuts roasting by the fire, that indeed comes only once a year. But the greater truth of Christmas is meant to warm our hearts all year long.
Would you like Christmas to last all year long? It can if you will do what the shepherds did. Go back to where you came from.
Back to your office.
Back to your classroom.
Back to your factory.
Back to your neighborhood.
Back to your job.
Back to your family duties.
Go back to the humdrum of daily routine. And as you go back, glorify God and praise him. That is what the shepherds did. Christmas didn’t change their circumstances, but it changed them deeply and profoundly. And because it changed them, it changed the way they approached their daily work. Yes, they still had to deal with cranky sheep and sometimes they had to step in sheep manure, but that hardly mattered now. They had seen the Christ child.
Have you seen Jesus this year at Christmastime? If you have, then go back to what you were doing before and take the memory of Christmas with you. Glorify God and praise him as you go about your routine and you will find your days filled with joy.
How shall we celebrate Christmas now that Christmas is past? Let’s follow the inspired outline in Luke 2:17-20.
Proclaiming the good news that Christ has come.
Wondering at God’s amazing plan.
Pondering the works of God.
Glorifying God in our daily lives.
Start where you are and God will be with you. Do these things and you will have Christmas all year long. Amen.