Mary, Joseph, & the Baby Who Saves: A Short Christmas Devotional

Below you will find a reworked version of my church’s Christmas Eve service from 2021. Each year, I attempt intertwine the message of the gospel with the Christmas narrative as seen from the perspective of those who had a roll in the first Christmas story. This set of four short readings explores the Christmas story from the perspective of Mary and Joseph. The readings and the Scriptures in the title sections can be read on Christmas Eve or on Christmas morning before you dive into the goodies surrounding your tree. Or you could just read it now or anytime (for that matter) you are in need of some gospel cheer!

Merry Christmas!

History, Mary, & Recreation: Luke 1:30-38

Christmas can easily take up residence in our minds for it is a spectacular story of redemption. But it is not the kind associated with talking animals, Grinches, or scrooges. The story of baby Jesus unfolds not on the pages of fiction but upon the backdrop of history. When the angel appeared to Mary, he appeared to her in time and space. Using audible words, the angel declared that Mary would supernaturally conceive the Messiah, the savior of the world.

We can appreciate Mary’s bewilderment at this news. Much as in our day, Mary’s day knew little of the supernatural. The last prophets had vanished from view 400 years earlier. Only the high priest communed with God and that was only once a year for a few minutes. God spent the other 364 days behind a curtain separated from sinners. Mary understandably found the idea of personally communing with God (much less carrying him to term in her body) to be perplexing.

But it was not a new idea. When time began, the first man – Adam – and his bride – Eve – freely walked with God. No curtains were needed. In fact, clothes were optional. Everything from their skin cells to their minds aligned with the goodness, love, and kindness that defined the character of Jesus. God summed up the state of the world with these words, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good (Gen 1:31a).”

Though Mary’s ancestry winds its way all the way back to Adam and Eve, the virgin mother still found the idea of giving birth to the son of God to be rather hard to grasp. If nothing else, biology was against her. But as the angel noted, “Nothing will be impossible with God (Lk. 1:37).” The God who created the universe was still very much interested in his creation. Sin and shame would be delt with in the most unexpected of ways. God would once again walk among his people. The Messiah was coming.

Joseph, Common Sense, & The Fall: Matt 1:18-19

Mary and her cousin Elizabeth who had also conceived a son in her old age by God’s grace praised God for the Messiah kicking about Mary’s womb. But Joseph, Mary’s fiancé, found the pregnancy to be a troubling sign of the world’s brokenness. Like Mary, Joseph knew that God had created the world without spot or wrinkle. But he also knew why the world of his day no longer resembled the world of Adam and Eve. He knew why God had withdrawn behind a curtain.

Despite God’s love, the first humans had heeded the teaching of a snake and had embarked upon a rebellion that consisted of them eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They disobeyed God hoping to find additional goodness and power. Instead, they found the darkest evil and a demise unto death. By that one act, Adam and Eve corrupted both their souls and all physical matter. Surveying the human condition after Adam and Eve, King David concluded, “There is none who does good, not even one (Ps 14:3).” Humanity was corrupt and forever impure. A Holy God could not commune with sinners. He had to withdraw behind a curtain.

Operating with this understanding of the human race, Joseph naturally concluded that Mary’s pregnancy was the result of a sexual sin, a selfish act that had shattered their engagement vows.

If we are honest, we cannot fault Joseph for his conclusion. We too observe the effects of sin everywhere we look. Some of us stomp about in anger the moment someone insults our cooking or asks us to work late. Others of us try to deal with the pain of loneliness through buying stuff on Amazon or through consuming shady images hosted on even more shady websites. No amount of presents or smoked ham has been able to erase these elements of selfishness, greed, and pride that define the human condition and that produce so much suffering and loneliness. In short, the holidays cannot fix the sin that ails us.

If you doubt me, I encourage you to watch the children and (perhaps some adults) as they open presents. Undoubtedly more than one child will pout like the Grinch up in his bedroom this year because grandma got him the green one instead of the red one. Though some philosophers struggle to understand why men and women do bad things, Joseph got it. He understood that men and women were sinners. In other words, he knew that people like you and me do evil because we are evil. Just as Joseph set out to put away his fiancé, God must put us away. As Paul notes, “The wages of sin is death (Rm 6:23).”

But despite Joseph’s rational conclusions, Mary was not to be put away. Her story would not end in judgement and shame. In fact, she had done nothing wrong. Though the world was profoundly broken, the power of God would prove far greater than the power of the snake. Joseph would soon learn that Mary’s pregnancy was not the result of sin but rather the supernatural answer to it. In her womb resided the Messiah who would crush the head of the serpent who had doomed Adam and Eve. A new Adam was coming who would be the life and light of men.

Jesus, Fear & Salvation: Matthew 1:18-25

Matthew tells us that Joseph had decided to put Mary away quietly for the best of reasons. Joseph wanted to avoid the public humiliation associated with dragging a sinner before the city’s elders. But Joseph also did not want to embrace her shame and forever hear people snidely say, “He’s Mary’s husband, but that is not his kid.” He feared the consequences of being with her.

Perhaps you too know fear this Christmas. Perhaps you fear the consequences that will come if the wrong person got ahold of your phone, your browser history, or of your credit card statement. You fear what would happen if all that you have done in secret was made public.

Moreover, we all fear death, that moment when we will come face to face with God. If we must hide our warts from mom and Dad and aunt Sally, can we really expect that God will be ok with our sins?

Sure, we have done some good things to compensate for our wickedness. We’ve gone to church a few times and donated to charity. And yet the fears remain. We just don’t know. Will God forgive us?

 But the great news of Christmas is that we no longer must fear. As the apostle John, Jesus’s closest earthly friend, writes, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” Or as the angel tells Joseph, “Do not fear.”

You see, the baby in Mary’s body was a special baby. The angel tells Joseph it is conceived by the Holy Spirit. It is not the result of sin but of divine mercy. The angel makes this clear when he tells Joseph to call the baby, “Jesus for he will save his people from their sins.”

Jesus comes to deal with our fears and worries. He comes to save us from our sins and our sin’s eternal consequence of death. He lived the perfect life that we were meant to live. When the snake came to tempt him, Jesus resisted the temptation and sent Satan scurrying away. Matthew would later record God the Father saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased (Matt 3:17).” Unlike Noah who had to be reproved for drunkenness, unlike Moses who had to be corrected for getting angry, and unlike David who was tainted by violence, Jesus proved to be fully righteous, the perfect lamb without spot or blemish.

Though he had done nothing wrong, he still dies on the cross. He dies for our sins, fears, and worries. He dies so that we might be free from all the eternal consequences of our sin. His blood washes all guilt and shame. Said positively, he dies so that we might have life and have it abundantly.

But he does not stay dead. Matthew 28:5-6 reports, “But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.”

Through his death and resurrection, the baby conquers death. We must no longer submit to it. The light prevailed.

When Joseph awoke from his dream, he went and did as God commanded. He married Mary, protected her virginity until the birth of Jesus, and then named Mary’s baby, Jesus, as the angel commanded him. He placed he trust in the Lord his God and came to know the peace of God. But what about you? What will you do? Will you repent of your sins and implore Jesus to save you? Will you exchange your fears for abundant life? We you trust Jesus and obey him?

Fear not, Jesus has come to save us from our sins.

Will You Ponder: Luke 2:15-20

Redemption has come. The baby in the manger came to create a pathway back to the paradise that Adam and Eve had walked in. As the apostle Paul noted in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This indeed is good news of great joy. The shepherds rightfully burst forth into praise when they saw the prince of peace lying in a manger. Jesus is worthy of worship for he saves his people from their sins.  

Admittedly, worshiping a baby in a manger proves to be a rather uncommon practice. The people who first heard the shepherds story all those thousands of years ago understandably wondered about what they had heard. They did not fully understand that the crux of the universe’s story was unfolding before them. I suspect, the average Bethlehemite wrote off the events of that night as just another odd moment in their lives.

But the virgin Mary knew better. She treasured the appearance of the shepherds and their tale of peace on earth. She knew it was true for God had revealed to her that baby Jesus would exalt “those of humble estate (Lk. 1.52).” Long after the last whispers of the shepherds’ voices faded in the distance, Mary continued to meditate upon what she had seen and heard. Those events would be for her a source of great inspiration and hope.

They should inspire us as well. Within the historical events of the first Christmas story, we find the good news of great joy, the spirit of Christmas: a Messiah who saves sinners from sin and death. It is the pondering of this gospel that provides us with a joy that never fades.

Friend, it is this joy that we long for you to experience this Christmas Eve. If you have always stood outside the stable wondering about Christmas, we invite you to come to the manger tonight and to worship Jesus. Come ponder your sin, God’s goodness, and Jesus’s work on the cross. Confess your sins, repent of your evil deeds, and then believe on the finished work of Christ. Come meditate upon the true Christmas spirit, the spirit of redemption.

May our pondering upon baby Jesus lead us all to treasure the Messiah afresh this Christmas!

3 Devotionals For Your 2022 Advent Season

Set against the backdrop of all the Christmas business that threatens to overwhelm us, the season of advent proves to be a blessing. It calls us to pause and to find hope afresh in the Christ child. Here are three fantastic devotionals that will help you and your family care for your soul this Christmas season.

The Weary World Rejoices

Put together by the editors and writers of the Gospel Coalition, this five-week devotional contains focused meditations centered upon the traditional themes of the advent wreath that can be used in a variety of ways. Each of the 25 devotionals begins with a Scriptural passage and then moves on to a 1–2-page reflection that feeds into a response section that contains a couple of questions that will help the reader (and if applicable the reader’s family) to apply the message to their life. Each devotion ends with a rejoice section that highlights a hymn. This 117-page devotional devotes 5 readings to each of the of the 5 advent themes that churches often focus upon when lighting their candles: Hope, Peace, Joy, Love, and Faith. The book can be read from Dec 1- Dec 25 or can be used once or twice a week to compliment your family devotions. I will be using modified selections from this book for some of our church’s advent readings and will also be reading this book with my kids during our family devotions. If you are looking for an advent devotional that will emphasize the traditional themes of advent through faithful exegesis of the Scriptures, I encourage you to grab a copy of this book.

Repeat the Sounding Joy

Christopher Ash’s 153-page book beautifully applies Luke’s account of the Christmas story to our lives over the span of 25 devotionals. Each day begins with a passage from Luke which then is followed by 2-4 pages of exposition that apply the Scriptures to the fears, struggles, traditions, expectations, and hopes that shape our holiday experiences. At the conclusion of each devotional, the reader will find a suggested hymn, prayer, and space to write down their own reflections. If you long to know the theology behind the first Christmas story better, I encourage you to grab a copy of this fantastic devotional. My family and I worked through it last December and were encouraged by Ash’s gospel-centered meditations which helped us to appreciate what Jesus has done and what he promises to do again. Adults, teenagers, and families with older kids intent upon enriching their faith this advent season would do well to spend this December reading their own copy of Repeat the Sounding Joy.

Gifts of Grace

Jared Wilson wants this book to serve as a spiritual advent calendar that presents its readers not with a Lego minifigure or a piece of chocolate but with something far more sustaining….one of the “myriad of gifts that Christians receive through the coming of Christ and belief in his gospel.” Not only is Wilson’s advent devotional quite readable, containing fantastic lines such as “Santa Clause is a big, fat legalist,” it is also profoundly theological. Each of the 25 devotions found in this 136-page book opens with a Scripture passage before turning to a story that guides the reader from fun reflections to deep theological meditations tied to terms such as propitiation, expiation, and idolatry. Each of the 4-page devotionals also contains a Christmas song theme that are clearly laid out in the book’s last two pages. Those looking for a fresh, engaging (you’d be hard press to find another devotional that mentions Donald Duck), and yet theologically sound devotional for their quiet times or their family’s devotional time should order a copy of Gifts of Grace.

The Inopportune & yet Gracious Nature of Death

The calendar date escapes me but the memory replays vividly in my mind. As April and I headed to Charlottesville for her last chemotherapy appointment, my dear bride once more laid out her hopes for the future. She knew death lurked just around the corner. But she was not ready. She desperately longed to see our church mount the summit of self-sustaining health, to see me complete my doctorate, and to see our children come to faith. She was willing to relinquish the dream of shepherding her children into adulthood, but the rest remained nonnegotiable for her. Perhaps in a few more years, she would be ready to entrust her soul to eternity. But not now.

I openly doubted her conviction. She was such a planner and possessed such a love for others, I could not foresee her ever wanting to leave us. Even if she saw our three kiddos embrace Jesus and graduate high school, I know her heart would have longed to see them married and then establishing godly families of their own. She would have wanted to see our church accomplish this goal or that and watch me complete the next task God placed before me. Even at 45 or 50, she still would have had many a reason to keep on living. As the apostle Paul, she knew that to, “live is Christ (Phil 2:21).”

And so I slowly turned toward her, laid out my thinking, and then gently said, “I don’t think, you’ll ever be ready to leave us.” She smiled shyly and said, “I suppose you right.”

Can there ever be a good time to die?

The Inopportune Nature of Death

In one sense, the answer is no. No matter our age or season of life, death proves unnatural…an interruption of all that is good and right. While officiating the funeral of a dear man who passed in his 80s, I watched as one of his children stood up and tearfully noted that he had left too soon. She longed for a future that would still contain his funny stories and loving antics…things that had enriched his children and grandchildren’s lives for decades. As that day made clear, the human heart remains perpetually at odds with the idea of death.

Where God to come down from heaven in a whirlwind and ask us to name the time and location of our loved one’s death, I suspect none of us would be able to pick a point on the eternal timeline. We know only this world and that knowledge is woefully fragmented and incomplete. We do not see the eternal threads of consequence that make sense of all God’s actions and that make statements like “God works all things together for the good of those who love him,” true (Rom 8:28). Had April lived to be 49, 69, or even 89, I still would not have wanted to wake up in a world without her any more than I do today. As I tearfully told her that day in the car, “We are going to be miss so…so…very much. There is no good time to die.” In one sense, it truly is the greatest of evils.

The Gracious Nature of Death

Thankfully, the knowledge of eternity that we lack God possesses. Though we might be tempted to charge God with taking our loved one to soon whether that be the 1 day mark or the 100 year mark, God’s timing proves perfect. As Psalm 116:15 reminds us, the death of the righteous is precious to the Lord. God takes our loved one home at just the right moment. As Joseph Caryl wisely noted,

Whenever the godly die, it is harvest time with him; though in a natural capacity he be cut down while he is green, and cropped in the bid or blossom; yet in his spiritual capacity he never dies before he is ripe.

God never makes a mistake. He brings us home when he does because he loves both our loved one and us. Jesus delayed going to see Lazarus not only because he loved his friend but because he loved Mary and Martha as well (John 11:5). All things work together for good for both those in heaven and those on earth. No saint above will fault God for having brought them to heaven too soon. As Paul notes, “To dies is gain (Phil 1:21,23).

Why Christians Die

As much as I grieve the loss of my wife, I know she did not grieve her entrance into heaven. The end, the telos, of our existence is not a lifetime of free Starbucks, a winning lottery ticket, nor a fulfilling marriage. As C.S. Lewis noted in his essay the “Weight of Glory,” the very fact that men and women desire a utopia, a heaven, reveals that mankind was made for that eternal destination. To remain forever in the sorrows of earth lacking full access to God and surrounded by brokenness would prove a cruelty and not a mercy. I know a dear man decades my senior who has buried many a friend and family member. Though thankful for his long life, his face grows heavier with each passing year as his sorrows tied to pain and death continue to accumulate.

Where this life never to end, I suspect our sorrows would become insurmountable, and our salvation would remain incomplete R.C. Sproul helpfully noted,

Jesus bore all our sins on the cross. Yet none of us is free from sin in this life…The healing that is in the cross is real…But the fullness of healing from both sin and disease takes place in heaven. We still must die at our appointed times…There is no route to heaven except through this valley.

There is a reason God kicked Adam and Eve from the garden and barred them from the tree of life. An eternity marred by fallenness proves to be the very antithesis of the hope of the gospel. As our hunger for something better reveals, this world does not need to be preserved but remade. For the Christian, death becomes the means by which God ushers us into his presence and thereby satisfies our hunger for eternal goodness. The apostle Paul beautifully writes,

For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life (2 Cor. 5:4).

Just as Christ went from death to glory so to do all his children the moment their heart stops. To quote the apostle Paul again, “Death is swallowed up in victory. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting (1 Cor 15:54-55)?” Death ends in glory.

Good & Bad

So, can there ever be a good time to die? In one sense, no. I wish my April here with me today and forever. We were supposed to grow old together and have those rocking chairs on the front porch that she always talked of. We were supposed to raise a family together. But in the truest of senses, yes there is a good time to die…that perfect moment when God’s ushers our loved ones to their true end…their true purpose. And for my April, that day was June 25, 2022.