Christmas Isn't Canceled | A Normal Christmas
If you caught me a couple of weeks ago and asked me what I was going to be preaching about for Christmas, I wouldn’t have had any problem telling you. I had a whole series of sermons completely planned out. So, we were going to visit with Clark Griswold—as he strung lights all over his house in an attempt to create the perfect Christmas for his family. Then we were going to check in with Kevin McAlister—as he fended off the Wet Bandits while he waited for his family to return home. Then we’re going to talk about the Grinch discovering that Christmas is about more than just presents, and Charlie Brown finding out what this season is really all about.
But over the last ten days or so, all of those plans went flying out the window. And that’s because COVID-19 has begun to exponentially spread across our country and across our community. Since November 1, there have been more than 3 million people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in the United States and more than 50,000 people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in our state. And if all of those infections weren’t bad enough, we have also seen COVID-19 contribute to the deaths of over 25,000 Americans and 300 Kentuckians so far this month. And epidemiologists are warning us that it will only get worse over the next few months if we don’t take the necessary precautions to once again slow the spread of this virus.
So about ten days ago, our Governor began implementing new restrictions to do that. So our kids won’t be going back to in-person school until January 4th at the earliest. Bars and restaurants are once again closed for indoor dining. The capacity for everything from weddings to funerals has been limited to twenty-five people. And we’ve all been asked to stop gathering with more than one other family and no more than eight people at a time.
So with these new—and, let me add, necessary—restrictions being put into place, it’s become crystal clear that this Christmas isn’t going to be a normal Christmas.
This Christmas isn’t going to be a normal Christmas.
And the problem with that series of sermons that I had been planning to preach is that I really wanted to treat this Christmas like a normal Christmas.
For this Christmas, I was hoping that our biggest concerns would be about finding the perfect present for everyone on our list. For this Christmas, I was hoping that the only thing that we’d have to stress about was finding out that some of the gifts we needed to purchase were back-ordered on Amazon. For this Christmas, I was hoping that the only thing we’d have to worry about when planning our big family gatherings was how to avoid Aunt Agnus’s fruit cake.
And the reason why I was hoping that this Christmas would be a normal Christmas is because this year has taken a toll on every single one of us…myself included. Just to be honest with you right now, this whole pandemic has worn me out. And I’m getting a little tired of preaching to a camera every week instead of worshiping with you in-person. I’m getting tired of working on plans just to take care of the mundane stuff we have to do as a church only to have to go back to the drawing board because another surge in cases has occurred. I’m getting tired of only talking with you through phone calls and text messages and look forward to a day when we can shake hands and hug again. And I’m getting really tired of missing out on birthday and holiday celebrations with my family like we’ve been doing since March.
So, yeah, when I started thinking about this Christmas at Melbourne Heights, I wanted it to be as normal as possible. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve known that some of the normal things that we’ve done in the past at Christmas weren’t going to be possible this year. Simply because we sold our old building I knew we weren’t going to be able to have a Christmas Banquet or breakfast or even cantata this year. But I figured at the very least we’d be able to put up some of our old decorations, have all of our musicians together to play our favorite Christmas carols, and just think about how we can stay focused on Jesus during this crazy time of year.
But, as you’ve already seen in this service, that’s not going to be happening either. We’re taking the Governor’s restrictions seriously around our church. So, instead of having all of our musicians get together every week to play our favorite holiday tunes, we’re limiting it to our music minister and one musician. And since there are only two of them in the frame, there was no reason to do more than put up a Christmas tree. And I’ve already told you that the sermon series I had planned for this Christmas just wasn’t going to work this year.
So, over the last ten days, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what to preach this Christmas. And I’ve spent a lot of time asking what message we all need to hear. Because—once again—at this point, the reality should be setting in for us that this Christmas isn’t going to be a normal Christmas at all.
And a lot of us are struggling to figure out exactly what that means. I mean, can we celebrate Christmas if we can’t get together with our family and friends? Can we celebrate Christmas if we’re all opening up our presents over a Zoom call? Can we celebrate Christmas if we can’t have one of mom’s Christmas cookies? Can we celebrate Christmas if we can’t sing “Silent Night” in a sanctuary on Christmas Eve?
And the answer to all of those questions is: I don’t know. I don’t know what it will be like to try to celebrate Christmas if we can only celebrate with one other family and fewer than eight people. I don’t know what it will be like to try to celebrate Christmas if we have to do it over a Zoom call. I don’t know what it will be like to celebrate Christmas without having one of my mom’s Christmas cookies. And I don’t know what it will be like to celebrate Christmas without worshiping with you in-person on Christmas Eve.
But here’s what I do know, even if we can’t celebrate Christmas the way that we’re used, Christmas isn’t canceled. Even if we have to change all of our plans, Christmas isn’t canceled. Even if we can’t see any of our family and friends, Christmas isn’t canceled.
Christmas isn't canceled.
And, even though I hadn’t planned on quoting for a few more weeks, I think Dr. Seuss does a pretty good job of explaining why Christmas will never be canceled in his classic book How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Now, of course, this entire book is about how one bad banana with a greasy black peel of a character invaded the poor, unsuspecting town of Who-ville and did everything in his power to ruin their Christmas. As Dr. Seuss tells us:
He slithered and slunk, with a smile most unpleasant,
Around the whole room, and he took every present!
Pop guns! And bicycles! Roller skates! Drums!
Checkerboards! Tricycles! Popcorn! And plums!…
Then he slunk to the icebox. He took the Who’s feast!
He took the Who-pudding! He took the roast beast!
He cleaned out that icebox as quick as a flash.
Why, that Grinch even took their last can of Who-hash!
But in spite of his best efforts to steal Christmas, when the Who’s awoke the next morning…
Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!…
“It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
It came without packages, boxes, or bags!”
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought “doesn’t come from a store.
“Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”
And Christmas does mean more than just packages, or bags, or boxes from our stores. Christmas does mean more than family gatherings and sugar cookies. Christmas does mean more than special church services or meals. And that’s because Christmas isn’t about how we celebrate. Christmas is about who we celebrate.
Christmas isn’t about how we celebrate. Christmas is about who we celebrate.
So over the next few weeks, instead of talking about how we can celebrate Christmas this year, I want to talk about who we celebrate at Christmas. And there is no better place for us to start talking about who we celebrate at Christmas than at the beginning of the Christmas story.
And this story begins in Luke 2. And, just as a reminder for you, the book of Luke is basically a biography of Jesus. So in the book of Luke, we’ll find stories about Jesus’ life, his ministry, his miracles, as well as his crucifixion and resurrection. But right now, we're focusing on the story of Jesus’s birth.
So let’s start reading in Luke 2:1. It says:
1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
Luke 2:1-3 (New International Version)
Now I want to stop right here for a few minutes. Because I told you just a second ago that we were going to be looking at the story of Jesus’s birth, but when Luke starts writing this story he doesn’t even mention Jesus. Instead, he starts by talking about Caesar Augustus and some guy named Quirinius.
But have you ever stopped to wonder why Luke begins his story of the birth of Jesus Christ by talking about Caesar Augustus and this guy named Quirinius that you probably only know one thing about—and that’s that he was governor of Syria when Jesus was born? I mean doesn’t it seem a little strange to start a biography about Jesus by talking about somebody else? To me it does, so I’ve been thinking a lot about it over the last few days. Why does Luke start his biography of Jesus by talking about Caesar and Quirinius?
Now, if you’ve ever thought about it, you may have just assumed that all Luke is doing with this introduction is providing us with a date—or at the very least a year—when Jesus was born. After all, we’ve seen other places in the Bible where we’re told a certain event took place while a certain person was on the throne.
Let me give you an example to show you what I mean. The book of Daniel—which is an Old Testament Book (a book that was written centuries before the birth of Jesus)—starts like this: “In the third year of the rule of Judah’s King Jehoiakim…” and it continues from there. But just from that introduction, we know exactly when the story of Daniel takes place. Modern scholars can tell us that Jehoiakim was the King of Judah from 609BC to 598BC. So if the story of Daniel takes place during his third year as King, then it happened in 606BC.
So when we hear Luke tell us that the birth of Jesus took place, “In those days [when] Caesar Augustus issued a decree…” it doesn’t sound that different from the way the book of Daniel began. But here’s the thing, although you have probably never heard of Jehoiakim before, he was a king that the people of Israel knew something about. So saying that an event took place while he was king would be like us saying, “All of this happened when FDR was president.” Now I wasn’t alive when FDR was president but I know that his presidency began during the Great Depression and ended a month before World War II did. So if you were to tell me that something took place while FDR was president, I would have a pretty good idea of what the world was like then.
So when the book of Daniel begins by talking about Jehoiakim, everyone is going to remember that while Jehoiakim was king, Israel was invaded and conquered—and that sets the backdrop for the rest of Daniel’s story.
And the same thing is going to happen when people in the first century hear that the birth of Jesus happened, “In those days [when] Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)”
The people who first heard this story would know something about Caesar Augustus and the people who first heard this story would know something about Quirinius—and all of that would set the backdrop for the birth of Christ.
So that leads us to this question: What do we know about Caesar Augustus and Quirinius?
Let’s start with Quirinius. And like I said earlier the only thing most of us know about Quirinius is that he was governor of Syria around the time that Jesus was born. But when you dig a little deeper you’ll learn that while Quirinius was governor, there was a major rebellion that broke out in Syria as a result of a government census. Because a government census wasn’t just conducted for tax purposes, they were also conducted to conscript men into military service. And let’s just say that the idea of being forced into military service didn’t sit very well with some of the people living in Syria at the time.
So when people heard the name Quirinius, they would’ve thought about this rebellion and the violent lengths Rome went to in order to stop it.
And then you have Caesar Augustus, the greatest emperor in the history of Rome, the man who sat on the throne during the Pax Romana—the golden era of the empire. And because things went so well when Augustus ruled over Rome, he was often heralded as the great king of peace—the one ruler who would finally bring an end to violence and warfare in the empire.
But if you know much about Augustus’s actual reign, you know he maintained peace at the point of the sword. The truth is he fought as many wars and ended as many lives as any other ruler in Rome’s history.
And this is the world that Jesus was born into. It wasn’t quaint. It wasn't cozy. And that tells us a lot about who Jesus is. I mean, think about it for a minute. Jesus is not just the son of God, Jesus is also very God of very God. So Jesus could have come at any place and at any time in history. But Jesus was born in the days when Caesar Augustus ruled over Rome and Quirinius was the Governor of Syria.
Jesus was born into a world that was filled with violence, warfare, oppression, and injustice. Jesus came into a world that was filled with fear, chaos, sorrow, and despair. Jesus came into a world that was filled with pain and suffering, and stress and anxiety. So why did Jesus come when he did?
Well, when Luke tells us that Jesus was born while Augustus ruled over Rome and Quirinius was the Governor of Syria, Luke is showing us that Jesus didn’t come into a perfect world…Jesus came into the real world.
Jesus didn’t come into a perfect world, Jesus came into the real world.
And sometimes that’s easy for us to forget. You see, usually when we think about the Christmas story, we think about kids running around in the bathrobe costumes on a stage at church. And those scenes are just so cute and so pristine that it doesn’t feel like it’s real. It feels like the Christmas story is just another story that we tell our kids—like Jesus is no more than another character we like to see this time of year like Charlie Brown or the Grinch.
But the way that Luke begins this story reminds us that that’s not the case. The story of Jesus isn’t some cute and pristine story we tell our kids. The story of Jesus is the story of a God who loves us so much that he stepped into the real world…our world.
So even though Jesus came into this world 2,000 years ago, Jesus can understand what we’re going through this Christmas. Jesus knows what it’s like to see people he loved be infected by disease…and he knew what it was like to see them die. Jesus knew what it was like to be separated from his family and to wonder if he would ever see them again. Jesus knew what it was like when celebrations got canceled and when dreams couldn’t come true.
Jesus knows what you’re going through because he’s been through it too.
Jesus knows what you're going through because he has been through it too.
The son of God, very God of very God, knows what you’re going through because he has gone through it too.
Think about that for just a second. The God who created this world and everything in—including you—knows what it’s like to be you. He knows the ups. He knows the downs. He knows it all. And that’s the God that we get to celebrate at Christmas. That’s the God that this season is all about.
So, yes, this Christmas isn’t going to be a normal Christmas. But no matter what you’re thinking, or feeling, or going through as you try to wrap your mind around what this season will be like this year; God understands. So if you’re feeling the toll of this pandemic, if you’re feeling a little tired and run down, if your heart is breaking because you might have to miss out on time with your family, know that you can turn to Jesus. Because Jesus knows what this world is like…and he overcame it.
Jesus experienced the despair of this world and overcame it with hope. Jesus experienced the sorrow of this world and overcame it with joy. Jesus experienced the chaos of this world and overcame it with peace. Jesus experienced the apathy of this world and overcame it with love.
So Jesus knows what you’re going through…and he can help you overcome it too.