A Spark For Your Heart
About the Guest
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David MathisDavid Mathis is executive editor of desiringGod.org, pastor at Cities Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, and adjunct professor for Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis. He is a husband and father of four and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines. Most recently, he is author of The Christmas We Didn’t Expect for Advent 2020.
David Mathis helps us to marvel at God afresh with practical thoughts and focused enthusiasm, reflecting on the divine pieces of God’s rescue plan for all of humanity found in the Christmas story!
A Spark For Your Heart
Bob: Author David Mathis says there’s a lot that was surprising, even shocking, about the first Christmas.
David: An unwed woman?—the virgin birth is one of the great surprises. And then that the angel would come to Nazareth—such an out of the way place, that all the Gospels have to explain what it is—because readers have never heard of Nazareth. It is a backwater town. People have heard of Bethlehem—that was the city of David—it’s small compared to Jerusalem, but nobody ever heard of Nazareth. That is serious backwater. It is one unexpected thing after another.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, December 1st. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Revisiting the details of the Christmas story each year can remind us of how surprising and how even shocking God’s grace is. We’ll hear more about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Tuesday edition. We’re going to talk about getting ready for Christmas today, but before we do that—it is Giving Tuesday. I think most of our listeners have probably heard from everybody they support about the fact that it’s Giving Tuesday. [Laughter] We want to add our voice to that as well, because this is a particularly critical time of the year for ministries like ours.
Ann: I think most of you have probably heard our story by now—that FamilyLife® has, literally, changed our marriage; it’s changed our lives; it’s changed our legacy. I know that we’ve heard from many of you that it’s done the same thing. I feel like you know how critical this ministry is. I hope you do, so we really hope you’ll consider giving this Christmas.
Dave: I don’t know, honestly, if we’d be married and have the legacy we have without FamilyLife. That Weekend to Remember® we went to as an engaged couple—and now, all the years; thirty-plus/almost forty years of input from FamilyLife—has literally changed us. I know it’s transformed you, and people you love, and even your legacy.
Here’s what I know about yearend and Giving Tuesday: Giving Tuesday’s awesome. I get emails after emails; and I have to make a decision, just like you do, like: “Who do I give to?”—some of you can’t; this has been a really tough year—you’ve been devastated, possibly, financially. I understand that; you do what you need to do.
But some of you have been blessed; God’s taken care of you and even blessed you. I would ask you/I would challenge you to consider FamilyLife as the one of maybe several. I hope [you’re] the one that says, “I’m going to give, and I’m going to give generously because God has taken care of me. I’m going to give double what I gave,” or “…a little more than I’ve ever given, because I know there are people who can’t; and I can.”
I want to tell you, as you give, you are changing families, like the Wilsons/families like yours. We need you, more than ever, this year to jump in, and help, and play your part. You can watch God use how He’s blessed you to bless others.
Bob: When you give today, we want to say, “Thank you,” by sending you a couple of thank-you gifts. The first is a flash drive that contains more than 100—really the top 100-plus—FamilyLife Today programs from the last 28 years with Dennis and Barbara Rainey, with Dave and Ann Wilson, with other guests we’ve had here: programs about marriage, about parenting, about extended family relationships—these are programs that are timeless.
Dave: And they also get a hot new book off the presses—[Laughter]
Ann: Yes; it’s good!
Dave: —Bob Lepine’s Love Like You Mean It book.
Bob: We’ll send a copy of the book, Love Like You Mean It, along with the flash drive, when you make a donation today. You can do that online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to donate. Thanks, in advance, for whatever you’re able to do.
And pray for us this month, that we’ll be able to take full advantage of the matching-gift opportunity. I don’t think I mentioned this; but your donation today is going to be matched, dollar for dollar, up to a total of $2 million; so when you give, your donation is doubled. Pray that we can take full advantage of that matching-gift opportunity here during the month of December. Again, give online at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to donate.
Let’s talk about the Christmas season. Did you guys have any kind of a Wilson family tradition? If I called your boys today and said, “What did you always do at Christmas that was kind of the family tradition?” what would they say?
Dave: Yes; “Mom buys a whole bunch of presents.” [Laughter]
Bob: —the Mother Lode! [Laughter]
Dave: Dad is looking there, going, “What happened to the budget?” [Laughter]
Ann: No; I think they’d say several things: the tree—we’re all together getting the tree—that’s like a big, full day; food; praying before we open any presents.
Dave: —reading the Christmas story; you know, as a pastor, it’s really our Christmas service.
Bob: We’re talking about how to focus on the right stuff at Christmas. We’ve got David Mathis joining us this week to do it. David, welcome back.
David: Thanks, Bob. Good to be here.
Bob: David is a writer; he’s a speaker. He works for Desiring God ministries. He’s the author of an Advent devotional. We should say—your book, The Christmas We Didn’t Expect—is not a how-to guide for families on how to go through Advent. It’s a devotional for all of us to be reading through during the Advent season so that we can be re-captivated by the mystery and the unexpected that this season is all about, so it doesn’t become so common that we forget the amazingness of all of this.
David: That’s right. The world, and our society, has very much an agenda for your Christmas. If we’re not intentional, as Christians, we will fill it up with everything the world’s pressuring right into it. It’s a kind of call: “Let’s put Jesus at the center. Let’s marvel at Him, afresh, this Advent. Let’s see this as an opportunity.”
When the world is changing its colors and its tune—December has its own music; it’s by far the most distinct month of the year in our society—that’s an opportunity for Christians. It hasn’t always been this way with the pagan world; but for some reason, we have this situation. Let’s make the most of it, and let’s be intentional about keeping Jesus at the center and marveling at Him in this season.
Ann: I think that’s the word: “intentional.” If we’re not, we will get sucked into the commercialism, the gifts, the songs, the movies. It can be easy to lose Jesus in the midst of that.
I’ll never forget being 16 years old, having just given my life to Christ, sitting at a midnight service at church, sobbing because it was the first time I realized what Christmas was really all about. The fact that God came down and was with us—that was mind-blowing and life-changing to me—I was so grateful and thankful that I finally figured out what this Christmas season is about.
We can give that to our kids; but we have to fight for it or else they, too, will just get sucked into: “Let’s give a good gift,” and “Let’s watch The Grinch tonight.”
Bob: One of the biblical themes around Christmas/significant biblical themes is the idea of the virgin conception—which, really/better than virgin birth; it’s the virgin conception—Mary conceiving, having never known a man. First of all, explain why that’s significant beyond just it being an anomaly, that a virgin would conceive.
David: One way it’s significant is because that’s how God did it, and that’s how God tells us He did it. The fact that He puts it in Scripture makes it significant: “What’s God saying to us in doing it this way?” “Why did God do it this way? He could have done it other ways, but He chose to do it this way,” and “What’s He saying to us in that?”
One of them is the supernatural that’s on the frontend of Christmas. There’s a supernatural virgin birth at the front of Jesus’ life; there’s a supernatural resurrection at the end of Jesus’ life as He comes back to life at the great resurrection. This life is set off by the supernatural at the frontend and the backend. There’s something fitting to set this life off with the supernatural at both ends.
Also, what the virgin birth shows us—virgin conception—is the depth of our need. Humans could not bring about their own Redeemer; God had to come in from the outside. This is not something we can work; we can achieve; we can make happen. We are desperate; we need rescue. In the virgin conception, there’s an echo of God making the rescue.
That would be a third thing: “God’s the One who takes the initiative. We don’t take the initiative in our salvation; we respond.” The angel comes and doesn’t say, “Oh, Mary; could we have your permission to carry this out?” The angel announces, “Behold; you will conceive and bear a Son, and you will call His name Jesus.” God takes the initiative, even in the gentleness with which He comes to Mary, He announces what He’s going to do. God carries out His rescue mission to save His people as He comes in Christ.
Dave: Another unexpected—I know you have a lot of them in the book—it’s, literally, the God of all creation is entering time and space history. You would think it’s going to be the most glorious blast out of the heavens, and He comes so humble. Talk about that.
David: That’s right. We have our human expectations; do we not? I remember growing up—I think I was age six—when we did this Christmas play at our church called “Angels Aware.” Maybe there’s some Southern Baptist listeners out there who did “Angels Aware”; it’s a phenomenal play. I remember these songs; I can still go through the Old Testament prophets because of one song we did in there. [Laughter]
One of the songs was called If It Was up to Me. Different angels step forward and say how they would do it: “He’d be a great military ruler,” “He’d be a great athlete.” We have our human conceptions of glory; we have our human anticipations and ways that we would do it. God just shatters those.
His ways are greater than our ways; His thoughts are higher than our thoughts. He puts that on public display at that first Christmas. No human thought of this; this is how God does it. He shows His greatness; He shows His peculiar glory—that He does things far above “beyond all we can ask or think”—Paul says in Ephesians 3. He does beyond what we can expect as humans; that is on display over and over again at that first Christmas.
Ann: David, talk about what’s so unexpected about the wise men.
David: Oh my, the wise men. To call them wise men is an interesting publicity stunt; right? [Laughter]
Ann: —or the three kings.
David: That’s right—the three kings. The dudes aren’t kings; they’re not kings. Magi is where we get the word, “magician.” The magi—go to the Book of Daniel and read about the magi, also called the sorcerers or the astrologers.
One of the greatest surprises here is—the Christ Child comes, long expected—the trained theologians of the day are five miles away in Jerusalem. They give the answer to the magi when they ask: “Oh, yes; Micah says He’ll be born in Bethlehem;” and they don’t even bother to make the five-mile journey down to Bethlehem. The pagan astrologers come, and they bow. It is a sign of what God is doing among the nations; He’s going to take pagans, and He’s going to make them into His people.
He’s going to take astrologers—He’s going to teach them a new vocation—because it is very clear, throughout the Old Testament, that astrology/the kind of things the magi do is abominable. It is just as clear, in the New Testament, as they encounter various magicians in the Book of Acts. The Bible is very clear about the vocation of being a magi: “This is not allowed.” Yet, what a picture of the sinners that God invites to come to His Son. He doesn’t say, “Clean up your act first, and then you can come.” He says, “Come on; come on where you are. I’ll change you; I’ll change you through worship,” as they bow, as they rejoice with joy that is exceedingly great. They are being changed. It’s a picture of what God’s doing among the nations.
Bob: What about the choir that shows up with the shepherds? First of all, the fact that shepherds get the birth announcement—that’s pretty remarkable—right?
David: I mean, these are the blue-collar workers of the day. It’s not that shepherds were so well-respected/they were the dignitaries of the first century; that’s not why they were invited to His birth. This, again, is a mark of His divine lowliness, that God would do it in this way/that He would extend His arms open to the shepherds to say: “Alright; I’m not coming to save the popular,” “I’m not coming to save the acknowledged,” “I’m not coming to save those who have the ability to do this for themselves,” “I’m coming with my arms open to save all,” “Blessed are the weak. Blessed are those who know their hunger. Blessed are those who know their lowliness. I’ve invited those in.” That’s what happened with the shepherds.
Dave: A question that you’re answering, that I think is a critical question, is: “What does the way God entered the world reveal about who God is?” An entrance usually reveals something. You think about how queens travel into our country; I mean, millions of dollars are spent for all the glamor and glitz to bring a VIP through a town; right?
The God of the universe is making a statement; isn’t He?—about: “This is my character,”—by coming that way. That’s what you’re getting at; it’s so unexpected—it’s like, “Who would do this?” He’s revealing something very significant [about] His love for us in that: “He is approachable,” “He is humble,” “He is with you”; right?
David: It’s a rescue mission. This is not a cameo—[Laughter]—this is not just to show us: “Hey, you’re human. I’m God, but I can be human too,”—this is not a grand moment here. He’s coming on a rescue mission to save His people, which is why the song, What Child Is This?—I remember singing that as a kid, maybe as a teenager/even as a collegiate—thinking, “Why would we sing about nails?—‘spear will pierce Him through’? Come on; let’s just have a bright, happy Christmas!”
Ann: Like, “That’s not happy.”
David: “We’ll worry about the death in April when we talk about/we do Holy Week and Easter.”
As I grew up, I realized: “It belongs right here; this is a rescue mission. Yes, nails/spear will pierce Him through; Simeon will have his prophecy to Mary, saying, “A sword will pierce your soul as well,” meaning: “It’s going to pierce Him. He’s going to be pierced. He’s coming here to die for His people. He’s coming to rescue a people.”
Bob: Talk about the significance of what it was the angels said to the shepherds. I say “said” rather than “sang”; because I’m just letting you know—
Ann: Yes; why?
Bob: there’s nothing in Scripture that indicates they were singing.
Bob: Yes; that’s true. Am I/are you backing me up on this?
David: “The angel said”—is that right?
David: “The angel announced…”
Bob: “And suddenly there was with the angel a choir of the heavenly host.” That’s why we think they were singing,—because they were called a “choir.”
Ann: I was going to say—I know the word, “choir,” is in there.
Bob: “Choir” is in there, but there is nothing that indicates they sang. Here’s why that’s significant; I’ve had somebody point this out to me—that the angels sang at creation; the angels will sing again at the second coming—but in between, this person said, there’s no indication of angels singing, even at the birth of Jesus. They “speak,” but the Bible doesn’t say they “sang.”
If you want to imagine them singing, I/we won’t part fellowship with you.
Dave: Bob, you’re ruining the story.
Bob: I know!
Ann: You’re saying they’re only going to sing two times?!
Bob: Hark the Herald Angels Said—
Bob: —is how we should sing that song. [Laughter]
David: Oh, my.
Bob: The message was: “Glory to God in the highest; and on earth, peace and goodwill among men with whom He is pleased.” What does that mean?
David: I think the thing that’s more fascinating at Christmas is what that first angel announces when he says, “Fear not. Behold, I bring you good news of great joy.” What’s so significant there is that he talks about “great joy,” which is not a common phrase in the Bible. “Joy” is common. A typical English translation will have 200-plus mentions of joy—Old Testament/New Testament—“joy,” “joy,” “joy. God made a world of joys; there are various joys in our lives. We know joy.
But what is unusual is great joy. There’s great joy when David brings Solomon into the throne, and when Solomon dedicates the temple, and when Nehemiah builds the wall. At the resurrection, there’s great joy; and at the birth of Christ, there’s great joy. What’s so significant—that first Christmas—is that we are not just announcing joy at Christmas, which is one of the reasons to observe this season: take the opportunity, the Advent season, in a way that you may not take the month of November or the month of January. This is an occasion of great joy/of a joy that is surpassingly joyful compared to the normal joys of our everyday life.
God means to show us something. This is one of the most significant events in the history of the world here: as Jesus comes in to begin His life and as Jesus rises again to complete the work of redemption for us.
Bob: So, now, we’ve got to start singing, “Great joy to the world! The Lord is come,” and “Hark the herald angels said,” in order to be more biblically accurate. [Laughter]
David: Very good! [Laughter]
Ann: Let’s get real practical and talk about: “How can we really carve this into our schedules?” . What are some things that you guys have done, Bob, in your family to make sure that we’re really getting this in our hearts and in our homes? David, what kind of practical things, besides reading Scripture every day—like are you guys praying as a family?—are you praying with your wife?—are you reading the Scripture, more than just the one words, with just you and your wife?
David: A great way to build any habit is to get it as early in the day as possible. Once the day gets going and rolling, there’s a chance something’s going to come up/interrupt it.
Ann: —said the morning person. [Laughter]
David: Said someone, who’s made himself a morning person, who didn’t live that way the first 20 years of life. The earlier we can get to it, the more it will set the pace/the trajectory for the day.
If you want to break up the Advent season into individual days, why not fly it as a banner over each day?—whether that’s personal devotions or that’s gathering the family together.
I love taking a single verse, explaining it to my kids, praying through it together, and then we launch into the day, just to have that reminder: “Hey! This is great! It’s Christmas season! We’re coming up on Christmas. We’re in Advent here!” Let’s start the day with that reminder.
Then, growing up, our family would do an Advent candle on the Sundays. We did a once-a-week rhythm there, growing up. We’d have the Advent calendar; we’d do a Sunday reminder of that. There can be weekly rhythms to it; some churches will do that, where they’ll light the Advent candle as part of the service on Sunday.
One way to think through it—some personal rhythms that may help you remember the season and keep Jesus central. Something for the family, that’s perhaps daily/something, maybe weekly. Then, as a church family, it’s an opportunity—for any pastors who are listening or lay leaders in the church—think, “How can we make this season special?” “How can we take an opportunity?”
Dave: Grandparents, you can do a Zoom.
David: Oh, yes; grandparents are the best for that.
Dave: They’re great for that; yes.
Bob: We do the Advent wreath at our church; we lit the first candle this week as we sang O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.
I think having Christmas music on in the house—I would say: “Try and have Christmas music on that’s about Jesus, not just about Rudolf and Frosty.”
Dave: [Singing It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year]
Bob: I like all the—I’ll Be Home for Christmas—I like all of that—but there’s something about Hark, the Herald Angels Sing/there’s something about O Little Town of Bethlehem—there’s something about those songs, that just getting those in your children’s heads and hearts—maybe you’ve got a guitar, and you pull it out and you sing it together as a family/maybe you teach your kids some of these classic carols—go to the hymnal. If you have a hymnal in your home—and you should—go get out the hymnal and find the songs in your hymnal that will not include Sleigh Bells Ring, Are You Listening? or Jingle Bells; right? Sing the songs of Jesus in the season, and plant those in your kids’ hearts.
Ann: I would even add—at bedtime is a great time for discussion with kids, who are a little bit older, not toddlers necessarily. Just maybe on those evenings, talk about a Bible character that was in the Christmas story—like, “What do you think it would be like to be Mary?”—to talk about Elizabeth/to talk about the shepherds in the field. It would be great to listen to kids as you tell the story of the shepherds were in the field and “This is what the angels said.” It’d be so interesting to get kids to identify with the characters in the Bible.
Bob: “Wouldn’t it be great if God would do to Dad what He did to Zechariah, and he couldn’t speak for several months?” [Laughter]
Bob: Maybe get a copy of David’s book. I think, with older kids, you can read a few paragraphs and talk about that at the dinner table. The point is intentionality—we’re back to that—making this something that’s purposeful. Don’t let this season get past you and go, “We missed an opportunity.” Take advantage of an opportunity God’s given you.
David, thanks for helping us kick off the season, rightly, here. And thanks for the book. I think that’s going to help a lot of folks/help a lot of us during this Christmas season.
David: I enjoyed it. Thanks for having me here.
Bob: Yes; you can go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, to find out more about David Mathis’s Advent devotional, The Christmas We Didn’t Expect: Daily Devotions for Advent. Order a copy from our website, FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to order: 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
As you have probably heard somewhere, today is Giving Tuesday. It’s a good day for you to think about yearend donations to ministries/organizations that God has used in your life over the last 12 months. If FamilyLife® is one of those ministries or organizations, this is a great time to make a donation for a couple of reasons. First, your donation is going to be matched, dollar for dollar. We’ve got a matching-gift fund that goes up to $2 million. We want to take full advantage of that, so any donation you make today will be matched.
And we’ll send you, as a special thank-you gift today, a copy of my book, Love Like You Mean It. We’ll also send you a flash drive that’s got the top 100 FamilyLife Today programs from the last 28 years. You’ll have a library of some of the best programs we’ve ever done on marriage, on parenting, on family issues; interviews with people whose names you will recognize. All of that comes your way when you make a donation today on Giving Tuesday. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to donate, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to make a Giving Tuesday donation. Thanks, in advance, for whatever you’re able to do. We appreciate you.
Tomorrow, we’re going to turn our attention to a very challenging topic. We want to talk about the struggle that some people face with what’s called gender dysphoria. How should we understand that? How should we think about it as Christians? How can we have compassion for those who are wrestling with this desire and still stand for the truth of Scripture? J. Alan Branch will join us tomorrow to talk about this. I hope you can be with us as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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