The Christmas Story- Up Close
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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.
Where is Christ in the busyness of the Christmas season? David Mathis gives insight on how to draw from the awe and wonder of the original Christmas story to refocus our hearts.
The Christmas Story- Up Close
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We also want to talk about Christmas and getting ready for Christmas. You know, I think, over the years, as we’ve gone through this with our family, I’ve started to look forward more and more to the spiritual season of Christmas—not just the holiday and the traditions—but keeping—
Bob: —Jesus at the center of all of this is so—not only so important—
Ann: It’s critical, I think.
Bob: —it’s such an opportunity for us, as parents. It’s like, in volleyball, it’s the set at the top of the net. You’ve got a chance to spike home some really good, solid, spiritual truth over the next several weeks.
We’ve got David Mathis joining us this week on FamilyLife Today. David, welcome.
David: Thank you, Bob. Good to be here.
Dave: He’s like, “Are you guys ever going to stop talking so we can talk about something of substance?” [Laughter]
Bob: David is an author; he is a speaker. Do you work fulltime with Desiring God?
David: I do; yes.
Bob: Anybody who goes to the Desiring God website—and sees articles—I’ve benefitted from so much of your writing on there. Now, the Advent devotional that you’ve put together called The Christmas We Didn’t Expect, which your heart for this book is so that, in the midst of a busy season, we can keep calling our hearts back to what this season is all about.
David: That’s right; we want to keep Christ central in this season. When we get the volleyball set—
David: —that Christians would spike that in our families, in our churches, with our neighbors.
Ann: And we would know how to spike it.
David: That’s right.
Ann: I think that’s what you’ve done; you’ve given us a tool/a reminder—Scripture. I love your book; because it really does give us some new insight, maybe, that we haven’t discovered in the Bible/that we haven’t noticed before.
Bob: Explain Advent because some people didn’t grow up hearing about Advent like—
Dave: I didn’t!
Bob: Your church didn’t do anything with—
Dave: I didn’t grow up knowing what Advent was. There’s a lot of people who don’t know what it means.
David: Advent is based on a Latin word, adventus, that means “coming” or “arrival.” It’s the marking of/the celebrating of the coming of God Himself in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. Advent is—it’s a season of waiting for that great coming/that great first coming. There/also, the second coming gets drawn in as well. When we sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come…,” Isaac Watts wrote that about the second coming.
David: And we sing it at Christmas, because there is this kind of mapping on of the first coming to the second coming. The Old Testament saints waited for the first coming; we’re waiting for the second coming; there’s an overlap there. That first Advent/that main Advent is the coming of Jesus in that first Christmas that we celebrate on our seasons.
Bob: This is something that has been a part of church tradition and the church calendar for centuries. There’s really not anything in the Bible that points us to Advent as something we’re supposed to do; but the Bible does point us to the events that happen before Jesus came and reflecting on that is really what Advent is about; right?
David: That’s right, Bob. You said a minute ago about Advent being an opportunity. I like to say that Advent is not an obligation; it’s an opportunity. Romans 14 is very clear that Christians are not mandated to celebrate days, and feasts, and seasons. There is no biblical mandate that you must celebrate Advent during the December time, or Lent during the Easter season, or a specific Christmas Day/a specific Easter Day—these are options; these are opportunities for us as a Christian.
What I want us to do, since most of us do celebrate some sort of Christmas season, is: “Let’s make Jesus central in it. Let’s make the most of that opportunity that is Advent.”
Dave: And Advent also says, “Don’t start on December 24th”; right? It’s like: “Back it up and take a month”?
David: That’s right. One way to say it is: “The 24 hours of Christmas Day is just too little time to celebrate how stupendous it is that God Himself became human and tabernacled among us in the person of Christ.”
One way to approach Advent is to say: “Hey, let’s take 24 days and more to prepare our hearts and to lengthen out the celebration”; because that’s one way that Advent serves us—is by lengthening the celebration of Christmas back toward our Thanksgiving/back toward the early parts of December.
But another aspect—and this is the way that Christians have mainly talked about Advent throughout the history of the church—is Advent is a season of waiting. It’s like the fast before the feast. When you fast before a feast, the feast tastes all the better. As you mark the Advent season with waiting, and with putting yourselves back into the shoes of God’s first covenant people as they waited—year after year, century after century—for this promised, anointed One, the Christ, the Messiah to come—it’s captured so well in the song, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, with the minor chords—how they waited. O Come, O Come Emmanuel is a really good theme song for Advent as a season of waiting.
As we rehearse that together, as Christians, we grow in anticipation; we grow in our patience; and we ready ourselves for the opportunity to celebrate Christmas Day.
Bob: In the history of the church, some people have looked at Advent and looked at Christmas differently. They’ve seen Advent as this time of waiting; they don’t put up the decorations early. They don’t put presents under the tree early. They kind of save everything for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; right?
David: We’ve all heard about The Twelve Days of Christmas because we sing the silly song; but most of us don’t know what the twelve days of Christmas means. It, typically—this is more often than not in church history—people have/the church has celebrated the twelve days of Christmas. They’ve said: “This is such a significant celebration; let’s lengthen it out to twelve days,”—so December 25th through
January 6th—January 6th being the Epiphany, which is Greek for “appearing” or “coming.”
You get this Advent season of celebrating Jesus’s coming; you’ve got January 6th celebrating the arrival of Jesus among us; and there is a twelve-day season there to celebrate this great feast of Christmas. Advent, then, is the fast coming before the feast. Sometimes, Christians have been strict and said: “Let’s not do the Christmas tree,” “Let’s not do the decorations,” “Let’s not sing the bright, happy Christmas songs,”—that we love, like Joy to the World/—
David: —“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing—“Let’s not sing that until the twelve days of Christmas,”—which if, that’s what you do—God bless you; that’s fantastic.
What you want to do in your home—that’s great—I want to help you keep Jesus central in that season.
Ann: Well, David, in your book, you talk about how the first Christmas teemed with the unexpected. Even the title of your book, The Christmas We Didn’t Expect, what do you mean by that?
David: It is amazing to reflect on how many things were unexpected in that first Christmas. For us, it seems so obvious. I mean, we do it every—the wise men come every year; the shepherds come every year—we’re so used to the story.
David: But to put ourselves back there, 2,000 years—and to think of the surprising way God did all the twists and turns—that King David would talk about his great Messiah/his great descendant that would be coming; and then it would be 1,000 years/Isaiah would prophesy; and it would be 700 more years, and Malachi would give us the last revelation in the Old Testament.
Four hundred more years after Malachi, and then, that the angel would come to an unwed woman?—the virgin birth is one of the great surprises. And then 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.
One detail after another—that God would save His Son by bringing Him out of Herod’s jurisdiction to Egypt—God saved His people from Egypt; now, they are going to Egypt to save His Son. There is one unexpected thing after another. Even in that early season, when He goes to temple to be dedicated, that Simeon, an old man, would say to Mary that: “A sword will pierce your soul as well.” “What do you mean?—
David: —“talking about this little baby?—a sword is going to pierce Him, and a sword is going to pierce Mary’s soul as well? What’s going on?—what tragic/what catastrophe is going to happen to this child?” It is one unexpected thing after another.
The magi and the shepherds are a part of that as well.
Dave: Now, when you go through the Advent season with your family, do you start talking about those kinds of things? I mean, what’s it look like for a family—you’ve got twins; right?—a ten-year-old?
David: Twin boys who are ten; my daughter, Gloria, has a Christmas birthday. The book is dedicated to Gloria. She will be six—
David: —this Advent. Then, Mercy is three-and-a-half.
Dave: Talk to me. A lot of families are listening; they are like, “Okay; I’m going to do this Advent thing; I’ve never really done it. What would it look like?”
Dave: First of all, get your book; right? [Laughter] You’ve got to start there; and then what?
David: Here is an idea. If you’re a father of a family like mine, with young kids, the kids can handle a verse or two—it’s really direct—and then Daddy’s heartfelt explanation of why that verse matters.
What we’ve done at the Mathis house the last couple Advents—and you can do it very differently, and I think we’ll probably do it again this way this year—is we take one verse for each day. Beginning December 1, I’ve got a verse assigned to that day all the way through December 24th. We wrap up the verse: we print it out and wrap it up with a piece of chocolate. Then we take that verse for the day, unwrap it; I read the verse.
Dave: Wait! Who gets the chocolate?
David: We all do.
Dave: Oh, you all get a piece.
David: That’s why it’s good.
Dave: Okay; good.
David: Mommy and I get chocolate too. [Laughter]Unwrap—read the verse and give my explanation of why that verse is significant: “What is the meaning of that verse related to Christmas and the season of our celebrating?” Then we break up the chocolate, and we all hold it up. I say, “Christ has come,” and all the kids say, “Christ will come again”; then we eat the chocolate. [Laughter]
David: See, if you want to know what my 24 verses would be, there is a verse at the beginning of each chapter. Day 1, Day 2—all the way through Chapter 24—each has a banner verse.
One thing you could do/one way you could use this resource for your own devotions during Advent—as well as for your children—is Mom and Dad could read the meditation on the verse and then close the book, put the book aside, gather the kids, read the one verse, and then just share from your heart what comes to mind from reading the devotional—any thought/anything that struck you—share that with your kids just briefly, and maybe have a chocolate together, and pray together. [Laughter] That’s one way to move through Advent.
Dave: Well, I mean, the beauty of that is—we’ve never done this.
Ann: No; we haven’t celebrated Advent.
Dave: I mean, when you’ve got tickets to a great concert, and you start counting the days, you get so excited—
David: Oh, yes.
Dave: —because you know—I mean, I was thinking, when you were talking about Advent, the NFL does this every week.
David: Oh my; that’s right.
Dave: If you think about what people do, it’s just crazy—they watch pre-game shows all week long. I know I’ve done this when I watch the Super Bowl; I’ll sit down and watch the pre-game I never do that [for other games]; I’m like, “Oh, I’m so excited now for the game,” because I know some of the backstory.
That’s what Advent is doing. It’s like taking you back, [saying], “Get your heart read; get your heart ready; get your heart ready,” day after day after day. It makes the day so much more significant. I can’t believe we’ve never done this, honestly.
David: I know so few dads that would say, “Oh, our family devotions are really where we want them to be.
David: “We’re doing it every day. It’s the right length.” Usually, there’s always, “Oh, I go way too long,” or “We don’t have the devotions,” or “It doesn’t go how I want.”
Advent is a great opportunity to work on that as a family. It’s a good occasion to say, “You know what? We’re going to do this daily—is one verse. I’m going to read one verse, and I’ll give you 30 to 60 seconds of why I think that verse is important, and let’s pray together.” That could be a great thing to do in your family to help just jump start a spiritual dynamic/a family devotion that would be regular if it’s not daily.
Dave: You say in your book, “Christmas is not a beginning; it’s a becoming”?
David: Oh, yes.
Dave: What does that mean?
David: Okay; that’s talking about the incarnation, about God Himself becoming man. Jesus didn’t start in Mary’s womb. The eternal second Person of the Trinity has always existed; so Christmas is, in that sense, a becoming. It’s not Jesus’ beginning, but God Himself, in the person of His Son, is taking on our full humanity. He becomes human without ceasing to be God. This is just amazing.
This is an important truth for us to understand, as humans, that humanity and divinity aren’t opposed to each other on the same plain of reality such that to be fully human means you can’t be God. For Jesus, He is fully human and fully God; humanity and divinity operate on different levels of reality such that fully God can take on full humanity—that God Himself can become man without ceasing to be God.
That’s what we mean in the book by saying, “It’s a becoming; it’s not a beginning.” Jesus doesn’t start in Bethlehem; He doesn’t start in Mary’s womb. Jesus has always been there in happy, joy, and relationship with His Father; and the Father sent the divine Son, who became human, at that first Christmas.
Dave: We’ve just got a little understanding of the Hypostatic Union? [Laughter]
David: The hypostatic union—
Dave: I don’t know if people understand that, but you just—[Laughter]
Bob: Look at you throwing out a theological term like that!
Dave: You know, I actually went to seminary about 50 years ago.
Bob: I know that; I know that.
Dave: No; I mean, you literally just described it, and didn’t even use the term. People are like, “Wow; that’s a powerful concept.”
David: A little insider tip—is that so much theological language is really just to help keep in place very simple realities.
David: If you just learn the terms, you see how simple they can be. Hypostatic is just the Greek word for “person.” It would be much easier for us to call it the One-Person Union; by that, what we mean is that united in the one Person of the divine Son/the eternal divine Son—in that one Person—there is the union of full divinity and full humanity. It didn’t happen at the same time—Jesus has always been fully divine; He’s always been fully God.
Then, at Christmas—this is what we mark/this is why Christmas is so significant—He became one of us to the full—fully human body, human emotions, human mind, human will. He took on our human environment. He identified with us in totality, except for sin, that He might come and save us.
Ann: I love your enthusiasm about this; because as you’re talking, I’m thinking, “Kids would get this.” You could explain it in a way that, I mean, God is fully God but fully human. To explain that to your kids, they can kind of start grasping it. If you are excited about it, your kids are going to get excited about it.
Our daughter-in-law puts out her nativity scene; and as she does that—the first time I went over to her house, I said, “Why are all the shepherds over here across the room?” She said, “Oh, the journey has just begun.” I thought, “Even that, it would be so fun to move the shepherds a little closer every day, and to explain what is going on in history right now; because kids can get that visual, and they can start to feel what is going on.” Even the fact that the angels came and sang to these shepherds, who were nobody out in the field, that could be so fun to have a conversation about that with the kids.
Bob: I’m going to find it; I thought, maybe, I could find it here on my computer right now; but I can’t. One Christmas—right before Christmas, when our girls were still, I think, like seven and four—maybe six and three—Mary Ann said, “Come in here. Sit down in the living room.” She said, “The girls have got something for you.” I said, “What is it?” They stood by the fireplace, and the two of them looked at each other and smiled. They said, “In those days, there were shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night in the fields.” They went through Luke 2.
Bob: They had memorized about 12 verses of Scripture, the Christmas story from Luke.
Ann: That’s impressive.
Bob: It was very impressive. I’m not sure Katie understood about half the words she was saying [Laughter], but this is something Mary Ann had been working on with them during the Advent season. They gave it as a gift to Daddy right before Christmas. This is how a mom and a dad can say, “We’re going to make Jesus the center of December.” There is a lot going on with so many activities and so much busyness that we can set Jesus off to the side and kind of get to Christmas even, go, “Oh, yes, yes; it’s about Jesus tomorrow; isn’t it?”
I think, David, this is what you are doing in this devotional you’ve written. You’re saying, “Don’t let this season become a distraction. Make sure our focus is on what it ought to be on.” The book that David has written is a devotional called The Christmas We Didn’t Expect: Daily Devotions for Advent. I know Advent is underway, but you can get a copy of the book now and get caught up once the book arrives. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to order David Mathis’s book, The Christmas We Didn’t Expect; or you can call us for more information. Our number is 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or order David Mathis’s book, The Christmas We Didn’t Expect, by calling 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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Now, tomorrow, we’re going to continue to look at the details of the Christmas story to see the surprising things we learn about God and His grace by studying the birth of Jesus. David Mathis joins us, again, tomorrow. 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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