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 Original Christmas Story is Still the Best

baby-4258530_1920Only baby Jesus explains why Christmas is good when people are not.

But biblical truth cannot restrain the imagination of pop culture. Books, movies, and songs seek to transform the divine message of Christmas into secular terms that all can embrace.

The Whos down in Whoville attribute the magic of Christmas to the power of community. Frosty the snowman ascribes the power of Christmas to the magic of the seasons. And, Fred Clause celebrates the holiday because there is no longer a naughty list

While these sentimental messages that connect with hearts, they fail to minds. The beauty of Christmas music can be destroyed by Kevin’s of the world whose sibling rivalries result in the school pianist being decked by an oversized Christmas tree. Many winters have come and gone since Karen meet Frosty. But no one else has seen Professor’s Hinkle’s hat. And for every misunderstood Fred, there are the water bandits,  Marv and Harry, who enjoy impersonating police officers, attacking kids, and stealing from charities.

Pop culture struggles to explain the magic of Christmas because the Christmas is ultimately not magical season. It is miraculous season.

Christians celebrate Christmas because a tiny baby was miraculously born. Luke 1:27-38 recounts how God told Mary that she would have a son. The verifiable virgin conceived a son prior to marriage and prior to sleeping with anyone. As Mary told the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin? (Lk. 1:34b)” The short answer is God through the Holy Spirit according to his power. Though unexplainable, the virgin birth was scientifically and historically verifiable. Luke credits his story as being “an orderly” account derived from eyewitness testimony (Lk 1:1-4).

Mary supernaturally had a baby boy. And, the baby born to Mary was not any ordinary baby. Mary calls her baby, “Jesus” (Lk 1:32). The name means God saves. The miraculous baby comes for a miraculous mission. He comes to save all those not nasty people who throw snowballs at little whos, who lock Frosty in a greenhouse, and who enjoy terrorizing a little kid left home alone. More importantly, Jesus comes to save people like you and me who struggle with very unChristmasy things such as pornography, pride, and gossip. He comes to save.

And this baby about to be born to an insignificant girl engaged to an insignificant guy living in an insignificant town can save people because he is God. Jesus is not some good teacher lighting the path of kindness for humanity. He is God in human flesh. Luke says, “He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High.” In plain English this means, Jesus is great for he is God. As opposed to John the Baptist who “will be great before the Lord.” Jesus is simply great because he is God. Jesus is both fully God and fully man.

We should be thankful, Jesus is divine. For if he were not divine, he could only save one of us. He could trade his life for another life. But because Jesus is God, he can pay for the sins of every man and woman who repents and believes. He has the power of God to bring all of us to him.

But the question remains how?

The angel’s next words answers this question. He tells Marty that Jesus will sit on the throne of David forever. Though God, Jesus is also fully man which means he can rightfully lay claim to the throne of his great (many times over) grandfather David.

But this raise a problem.  If Jesus can ascend to David’s throne, then he must also be mortal and capable of experiencing death as David had. Yet, the Luke 1:33 says “of his kingdom there will be no end.”

How does this work?

Jesus does die. Luke 23:46 recounts, “Then Jesus calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father into your hands I commit my spirit!”’ and having this he breathed his last.”

But he does not stay dead. Three days later Jesus defeats death. The angels tell us, “He is not here, but he is risen” (Lk 24:7). Jesus conquers death. He does the impossible. All who repent and believe gain access to the impossible. They can access to heaven, to life with God, to unbroken joy and glory. For the power the raised Jesus from the dead is the same power the guides all repenters to heaven.   Colossians 2:11-14 sums up the joyousness of Christmas well stating,

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

Christmas continues to be worth celebrating because it reminds us that God does miracles. The blessed virgin conceives. And then the God-man, Jesus conquers death, bringing countless numbers of sad and messed up people to the heaven. This is the miraculous joy of Christmas that transcends human imagination. This is why we can relishes the goodness of the day even when people are not good. Jesus saves!

Why are you celebrating Christmas this year?

Jesus’s Story Beats Every Other Christmas Story

Christmas-storyIf we got to write the Christmas story, I believe we would flip the story upside down. Instead of God coming to us, we would go to God. Walking through a divine portal brought into existence through some form of trauma we would arrive in heaven to sing songs and to hand Jesus some presents. Books such as Heaven is For Real, 90 Minutes in Heaven, and My Journey to Heaven are just some of the many stories the describe humanity reaching up to God. Yay us!

We think God and heaven are within our reach because our fallen hearts are quick to deny their fallenness. Most every fictional Christmas story from The Christmas Carol to The Grinch That Stole Christmas believes humanity can save itself. If we give Ghosts, Christmas songs, magical snow, and goodwill a chance, we can be confident that our hearts will grow the three sizes needed to crave the roast beast at Christmas.

But despite all our hopes, we haven’t been able to grow our hearts even one size…much less the fix world at large. We are still singing Stevie Wonder’s song wondering when if ever, “we’ll see a land With no hungry children, no empty hand.” Despite the promises of Christmas fiction which resonate with our belief that heaven is within our grasp, we never achieve the “Peace on Earth,” promised in all those Christmas stories  Boys are still playing with bombs, kids in Africa are still hungry, and our families are still dealing with depression.

Should we give up on the whole Christmas Spirit thing, then?

No! Christmas Spirit exists because God got the story right. God knows we cannot reach heaven. He knows we are frail sinners living in a broken an distraught world. He knows we need help. We have all lied, cheated, stolen, gotten angry, or spread some office gossip at some point. And he who commits one sin deserves death. “The wages of sin is death (Rom. 3:23).” Because we are sinners infused with death and devoid holiness we cannot sneak into heaven. The magic portal is closed. We cannot live with our holy, loving and perfect God. We are fallen and he is not. If he allowed sinners into heaven, he would cease to be good, loving, and just.  For evil has no place with goodness. Drug dealers don’t belong in baby nurseries and sinners don’t belong in heaven. We need help!

It comes!

 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.  And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. – Luke 2:9-11. 

That is the beauty of the Christmas story. Christ came down to live with us. And he came down to poor parent and slept in a dirty manager in a stinky barn. As Paul David Tripp rightly notes: “Most of us would be in a complete panic if we had to birth a baby in such conditions.” Yet, God chose a manager because he came to suffer for us. His whole life and death was offering to good to pay for our mistakes and errors. He came to live the lives that we are supposed to live. He suffered all the disappointments that we suffer. But he always responded with faith and love; we often respond with disbelief and anger

British novelist Dorothy Sayer captured the true meaning of Christmas when she wrote:

 He himself has gone through the whole human experience – from trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and a lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, death…He was born in poverty and…suffered infinite pain – all for us – and thought it worth his while.

Jesus died on the cross because he loved his children. He did not die for his sins. He died to pay for the sins of his of those who repent and believe. He died so that he could bring many sons to glory!

The Christmas story is worth celebrating precisely because we did not write it: we did not go up; Christ came down! Don’t you agree?