Why We Should Worship on Christmas

Oddly enough, the decision regarding whether Christians should gather for worship on Christmas morning has become controversial and even contested in some circles. I believe local churches should generally meet on Christmas. But before we discuss why, let’s stop and extend grace to four categories of Christians whose consciences should not be bound by this year’s church calendar’s concerns.   

Who Can Skip/Cancel Church This Christmas?

First, I am not talking to those who must dig through 50 inches of snow this Christmas morning to get to church. If you are snowed-in, God’s grace extends to you as it does to shut-ins, those sitting in jail for their faith, and others who find themselves physically kept from worship by God’s providential hand. Instead of condemning such souls, I believe we should empathize with them. As the author of Hebrews writes, “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you are also in the body (Heb. 13:3).” When God providentially keeps us from meeting, we have the freedom to cancel or miss services.

Secondly, I am not addressing those who are traveling this Christmas season. If you are attending Aunt Sally’s church instead of your home church, well done! Praise the Lord for the opportunity to experience another part of God’s kingdom!

Thirdly, I am not talking to those who gather for worship on days other than Sunday. Though the early church generally met on Sundays to commemorate the Jesus’s resurrection which took place on the first day of the week, neither the apostles nor Jesus commanded believers to worship on that day. They did the opposite and gave us freedom. As Paul told the Colossian churches, “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath (Col 3:16).” Local congregations have the freedom in Christ to worship on Saturday, Friday, or any other day of the week that they so choose. Such congregations should feel no pressure to change their worship service to accommodate the church calendar, however, helpful it may or may not be. If this is you, this is not your conversation.

Lastly, I am not addressing first-responders, soldiers, and others who must work on Christmas morning. Though as believers we should be slow to give up congregational worship, we should also extend grace to those who must work on Sundays to care for others or to protect the civil order. In Matthew 12:12, Jesus clearly stated that those protecting the innocent, healing the sick, and generally loving their neighbor can be graciously excused from worship at times. The sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. We should also freely extend such grace to those who miss services because they choose to care for a loved one in hospice or because they decided to stop and help their neighbor change a flat tire. If this is you, this is not your conversation.

Who Should Not Cancel Church?

So, who am I speaking to? I am speaking to those who will skip church on Christmas because of their church culture or societal concerns. The first group will cancel church on Christmas or skip their church’s Christmas service because their church’s parade of special programs in the days and weeks leading up to Christmas has exhausted them. They will pass on church to get some R&R and to enjoy some quality family time.

The second group will cancel church not because they have worn people thin, but rather because of social pressure. They will close because they fear (and perhaps legitimately so) that they will not have enough people to help in the nursery or to set up chairs or to lead music. Many of their key leaders will travel this holiday season. Others will not come because their extended families have guilted them into attending the family dinner in place of Sunday worship.

The Purpose and Power of Sunday

But these two lines of reasoning fail to account for the purpose of the church and its power. Why does the local church get together? To borrow from the Reformers of old, the local church gathers to facilitate the preaching of the word and to practice the sacraments. And if we understand both baptism and the Lord’s Supper to be mini sermons of their own and understand the singing of songs to contain an element of communal preaching, we could simplify the definition above even further and say that the church exists to preach the gospel. To borrow from the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 4:11 and 13, the elders of the church are to, “Command and teach these things… [and] Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” The church exists to save and to edify through preaching. As the next letter to from Paul to Timothy makes clear such ministry is to happen both “in season and out of season (1 Tim. 4:2).” Even this Christmas season.

Secondly if we arrive at December 25 and find ourselves too exhausted to worship or fearful of what will happen when we have fewer volunteers, I suspect we have forgotten that the success of service resides not in us but in Christ. Yes, we may be short staffed on Christmas. Our execution may not be up to our usual standards of greatness (whatever that might be). We may have wiggly preschoolers, mismatched chairs, and off-key songs. Distractions and challenges may abound. But that should not stop us.  

What does Christ require of us? Does he require perfectly synced transitions and complex worship arrangements? No, he requires us to faithfully preach the Word through sermons, sacraments, and song. A sermon poorly delivered that faithfully presents the gospel will do far more for the soul than Rudolph, white elephant gifts, and apple cider. Remember how Spurgeon came to faith under the preaching of a clumsy lay preacher who spent most of his sermon simply rereading Isaiah 45:22, offering only the most basic of reflections. Still that unnamed man’s faithfulness in a midst of a snowstorm that had prevented his pastor from reaching church and Spurgeon from reaching his home church produced amazing fruit. Friends, the success of the gospel’s proclamation depends not upon our skill nor upon how many are in the room but upon Christ. God’s Word is powerful and will not return void even if culture is against us (Is 55:11).

Moreover, the refusal to meet to worship will leave those who feel the pressures to abandon Christ for the sake of family tradition more venerable to cares of the world and to sorrow. For as Christ makes clear, life comes not through identifying with family but with Christ. He said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matt 10:37-39).” Let’s meet this Christmas and encourage the weak and the wavering to find the joy of Christ afresh which comes through a clean conscience shaped by obedience to the Word! Let’s preach the Word!

A Heart For Worship

In other words, the heartbeat of the Christian should be to worship! We are saved not to go off and meditate with our biological family as we sit around a fake tree but to worship Christ in the great assembly of His sons and daughters who have been adopted from every age and every people group. When faced with the choice to worship or not to worship, the believer (and those covenant groupings of believers known as local churches) should by default choose to come and worship Christ the newborn king if they can physically do so (See above for a list of exceptions). Or to quote King David, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” Worshiping Jesus on Christmas should not be a burden but the greatest joy…a privilege to be cherished!

In other words, I believe most churches should meet this Christmas!

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!

The Christmas Story, In 4 Parts

Below is short, narrative retelling of the Christmas story that highlights the golden thread of the gospel that is woven into the first retellings of Jesus’ birth. Designed as a Christmas Eve script, the story below will serve as an excellent devotion for you and your family this Christmas season. Read it on Christmas Eve around or on Christmas morning before you tear into the presents. Or simply tack it on your daily bible reading. I hope this recounting of the miracle of Christmas warms your soul anew this Christmas. Merry Christmas!

The Story Begins: John 1:1-5

All was quiet; all was dark that first Christmas Eve night. The shepherds scattered across the hills of Bethlehem had become accustomed to the despair. They were well acquainted with Rome’s red shields that glistened atop the walls of Jerusalem. What little dignity the Romans had left the Judean shepherds was exploited by corrupt priests who preferred philosophical discussions about the proper way to tie one’s shoe to debates about justice, love, and mercy. Indeed, the shepherds’ world was dark.

But the world had not always been this way. The shepherds had heard the stories of the great prophet Moses. He had talked of a paradise inhabited by the universe’s first couple, Adam and Eve. There, at the beginning of time, all was good. All was perfect. Moses’s first book, Genesis, reports that, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good (Gen 1:31a).” Every day, Adam and Eve conversed with God as they walked through the garden together. The first couple could feel, taste, and sense the love, justice, kindness, and goodness of God. They in-turn cultivated a human society defined by love, kindness, and justice. No fears, darkness, or silence could touch their hearts for they knew God. Like a child on Christmas morning, Adam and Eve rebounded with joy, praise, and glory. All was good!

But as the Shepherds knew, those days of joy had faded into the recesses of history long ago. God now resided behind a curtain in the temple. He no longer walked with humanity. Even the great prophets like Moses, Elijah, and Isaiah had become the relics of a by gone era. God was silent, hovering far above the stars. Evil, despair, and sorrow filled the void he had left.

The Darkness Explained: Luke 1:68-71

The Shepherds also knew the source of the darkness. Moses spoke of a vile snake. He had slithered into God’s paradise, promising Adam and Eve equality with God in exchange for one act of rebellion. The couple took the snake up on his offer. But instead of being elevated to the heights of Mount Olympus, the couple stumbled into the pits of Hades. The couple lost their connection to the divine experiences of love, goodness, and justice. They had attached their souls to selfishness, brokenness, and lawlessness. Sadly, Adam and Eve destroyed not only their own hearts but also the hearts of all their children.

Their son, Cain, turned worship into a provocation for murder, serving as the new exemplar of humanity. Within a few generations, the evil of humanity reached such heights that God began humanity anew, wiping out the world with a flood. He set aside Noah to serve as the new father of the human race. But the builder of the ark would fail to keep the world pure, stumbling into drunkenness. God then set aside Abraham to create a people for himself. But like Noah and Adam before him, Abraham stumbled from the heights of faith. He lied and committed adultery.

His descendants fared no better. The great prophet, Moses, whom all the Jews revered disobeyed God, striking a rock in a fit of rage. The first priest, Aaron, created a golden calf. And King David committed adultery on numerous occasions before murdering an innocent soldier. Every great prophet, priest, and king of the Jews failed to escape the effects of Adam’s first sin. As the apostle Paul had said, “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned (Rom. 5:12).”
Darkness reigned. No human could overcome it.

If we are honest with ourselves, we too have known this darkness. Despite all our intentions, efforts, and promises to eat healthier, listen more, and complain less, we still find ourselves plagued by sin and lawlessness. We still get angry when a loved one interrupts our T.V. show. We still roll our eyes when Aunt Sarah gifts us another homemade sweater instead of a PlayStation. And despite all the lights, hot coco, and cheer, we still cannot find the power to forgive that one person that stabbed us in the back all those years ago. The darkness that hovered over the shepherds that first Christmas Eve still hovers over many of us.
But the darkness of that first Christmas Eve would not remain. An angel visited Zechariah while he ministered in the temple, telling the aged priest that he would have a son. Another visited a virgin in Nazareth, proclaiming that Messiah was coming! God was about to break through the darkness!

Baby Jesus: The Light of the World (Luke 2:8-20)

On that first Christmas morning, the light of salvation penetrated the darkness of earth in the form of a tiny baby. God filled the night sky with angels and his glory. It was light far more magnificent than any sun or star. It possessed a purity unlike any other. As the apostle John had written, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all (1 Jn. 1:5).” The shepherds understandably trembled when they first saw the light for God was holy and they were not. Were we with them on that first Christmas morning, we too would have been “filled with great fear (Lk 2:9).”

But the message of Christmas proclaims that we no longer have to fear God. The light that shone about the angels consisted of both holiness and forgiveness. The angel tells the Shepherds (and us) to fear not, “for behold I bring you good new of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto to you is born this day in the City of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord (Lk 2:10-11).” Jesus came not to judge but to save. He arrived not as some self-righteous, grumpy old man who looks cross eyed you when you walk into church 5 minutes late. He came humbly as a baby “wrapped in swaddling cloths and laying in a manger (Lk 2:12).” No pretense is required. No hoops have to be jumped through. To commune with God afresh, men and women need only to follow the shepherds to the stable and worship baby Jesus.

Though such an offer sounds outlandish, it is not. The manger was not a bait-and-switch tactic. It was a foreshadowing of Jesus’s true purpose. The baby in the manger can freely commune with sinners because he deals with their sins, dirty looks, and imperfections on the cross. As a child, teenager, and adult, Jesus perfectly fulfills the law. He faithfully worships God and never rolls his eyes or forgets to follow through on a project. He dies not for his sins but for ours. At his death, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two (Lk 23:45).” Thankfully Jesus does not stay dead; we do not commune with spirits who hide in the universe’s shadows. Our God is the God of the living. The angels at his tomb wonderfully declare, “He is not here, but has risen (Lk 24:6).” All who repent of their sins and trust in Jesus for salvation will live in eternity with him. God once again dwells “with those with whom he is pleased (Lk 2:14).”

This is the good news of great joy that the angels sing of. The light that Adam and Eve had rejected has returned to call sinners to himself. A prophet, priest, and king who never stumbled into sin has come, died, and risen again. The light has overcome the darkness.

Follow the Shepherds to Bethlehem: Luke 2:28-32

Christ the savior has come! This is the good news of great joy that shattered the darkness of that first Christmas Eve as the calendar flipped to Christmas day! As the Apostle Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” Christmas morn has dawned!

And now we must respond. We must follow the shepherds and come to the manger of the newborn king. As Christmas begins to dawn again, we should contemplate afresh the offer of salvation. If you come to the manger enveloped by the darkness of that first Christmas Eve, I invite you to repent of your sin and to trust in Christ for salvation. You need not do anything but come and worship Christ the newborn king. If you have already joined the shepherds’ song embracing the glories of salvation, I encourage you to kneel afresh at the manger. The miracle of salvation proves just as profound today as the day when you first believed. The light of revelation has come! Merry Christmas!