Willful Seasonal Amnesia
Don't leave baby Jesus in the manger.
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It happens every year, football season begins, the weather starts to cool, and Thanksgiving comes and goes, then enters the sentimentalism and nostalgia of the Christmas season. By the middle of November I see "baby Jesus" everywhere—on cards, in stores, on the television. Many people love this about Christmastime, even themselves decorating their homes in "baby Jesus" décor. This is also the time of year that most preachers start preaching exclusively about "baby Jesus."
I'm reminded of a scene from the movie Talladega Nights. At the dinner table with his family, Ricky Bobby prays to "Lord, baby Jesus" and "tiny, infant Jesus" and "8 pound- 6 ounce- newborn infant Jesus." He can't even finish his prayer before his wife chimes in— "Hey, you know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up." Ricky responds, "I like the Christmas Jesus best and I'm saying grace. When you say grace you can say it to grown up Jesus or teen-age Jesus or to bearded Jesus or whoever you want."
Although humorous, it's regrettable how many Christians share Ricky Bobby's view this time of year. Yes, we should be celebrating Jesus' miraculous birth during Christmastime, but here's the problem: Ricky Bobby's wife was right! Jesus did grow up.
Baby Jesus grew up
Did Jesus enter into human history as a baby? Yes. So what's the problem? The reason we celebrate the coming of Jesus is because of what he did on the Cross about 30 years after his birth. In other words, if this man, Jesus, was born 2,000 years ago to a virgin and lived for about 30 years and then died, and that was it, end of story, then we would have nothing to celebrate. We'd just have one crazy story to tell.
If we are celebrating the birth of Jesus, we are only celebrating because of what he came to do, and the fact that he accomplished what he came to do. Even those who fight to "Keep Christ in Christmas" can seldom articulate why. To celebrate only baby Jesus is to forget why he came. To celebrate only baby Jesus during Advent is sentimentalism, which breeds from a desire for the nostalgic. This is what I call "Willful Seasonal Amnesia." It is the voluntary forgetfulness of the complete work of Jesus during the month of December.
How can we help?
Preachers can help by shaping their Advent sermons to capture all of Jesus' life and work, starting with the miraculous birth and ending with his death, burial, and resurrection. Think this sounds more like Good Friday and Easter? Maybe Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter aren't as far apart as you once thought. Although our man-made calendar says that they are about three or four months apart, the good news of Jesus Christ has them inseparably linked. God sent his Son to fix our sin problem. God sent his Son into the world as a human to fix our sin problem. To preach the Christmas Jesus is to preach the crucified Jesus.
Asking the right questions
The five foundational questions for gathering information about any subject are also essential questions for adequately communicating the significance of the Advent of Jesus Christ—Who? What? When? Where? Why? The typical "Christmassy" sermon answers the "Who," "When" and "Where" questions. The answers to these question being: Baby Jesus, first century, and Bethlehem. Although these are important questions, their answers are not by themselves sufficient for communicating why the Advent of Jesus Christ is such good news.
We preachers can help protect our people from a "Willful Seasonal Amnesia" by answering the "What" and "Why" questions. What did Jesus do? In answering this question, the focus extends beyond the wooden manger and reaches the wooden cross. Additionally, asking "Why did Jesus enter into human history?" will bring a weighty significance to the reason for Christ's Incarnation. In answering this question, we remind our people that Jesus came as a human so he could live a perfect and sinless life in order to bear our sin and transfer to us his righteousness.
We know the whole story. This Christmas let's stop preaching like we don't.
Avoiding willful season amnesia
I see at least three successful approaches to defeating this yearly temptation. In the Traditional Approach, the preacher selects a traditional Christmas passage about the birth of Jesus or the prophecies leading up to it. With one difference … the preacher gives away the ending, like a spoiler alert. In other words, the pastor is honest about why the birth is so important. I'll give two examples that I have used in my preaching.
In Matthew 2:1-12 we find the story of the Wise Men visiting Jesus. There need not be any hermeneutical gymnastics to get to the Cross from this text. Think about the gifts that these men gave to the young Jesus—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The question that must be answered is: Why do they give Jesus these specific gifts? Gold is the most precious and costly metal; it was considered a symbol of divinity. Pagan statues and idols were made of gold and the Ark of the Covenant was overlaid with gold. The symbolism of these men giving Jesus gold was that he is in the royal line of David and his kingly reign would never end. Frankincense, when burned, gave a fragrance that was most desired. God commanded in Exodus 30 that it be burned in worship as a pleasing aroma to him. Jesus like the frankincense would be sacrificed as a pleasing aroma to the Father. One of the most common uses of myrrh was the preparation for burial of a dead body. John 19:39 tells us that myrrh was used to prepare Jesus' body for burial after his crucifixion. Jesus was not just a baby born in first century Israel. He is the King, he is the burnt offering for our sins, and he is the one who was punished in our place.
In Luke 1:26-56 Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary she will give birth to Jesus, the Messiah. This very young virgin should be fearful of losing her fiancé and possibly her life. No one would believe her story. She would be categorized an adulterer. However, verses 46-56 show Mary's joy and worship for the opportunity. So here's the question: Is Mary happy that she's having a baby or is Mary happy because she is having THIS baby? All the prophecies, all the waiting, finally the Messiah is coming! Mary is not rejoicing because she will have a child, she is rejoicing because of what the child will do.
The second way to avoiding Seasonal Willful Amnesia is called the Non-Traditional Approach. In this approach, the preacher selects a passage that is not typically considered a Christmas passage. Philippians 2:1-11 is a great choice. In Paul's encouragement for unity to the church at Philippi, he gives an example of Christ's humility. In doing so, he gives us a behind the scenes look at what it took to get the Word into human flesh. I like to call this "Christmas Behind the Scenes." We like to focus on the baby, but what must have happened to get that baby into that manger? Christ had to empty himself. He is God, but humbled himself. He is King, but became a servant. He is eternal, but died on a cross that was built for us.
The third approach is called the Question/Answer Approach. This is the most direct way to answer the necessary "what" and "why" questions. "What did Jesus say about why he came?" Jesus says in John 18:37, "For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice."
"Why did Jesus come to earth?" A preacher could take any number of biblically informed answers to the question and preach those texts. Here are some examples:
- He came to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15)
- He came to defeat the devil (1 John 3:8)
- He came to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45 & Titus 2:13-14)
- He came to fulfill the Law and Prophets (Matthew 5:17)
- He came to call sinners to repentance (Mark 2:17)
- He came to satisfy the greatest thirst (John 4:13-14)
If we leave the baby in the manger we have failed. We must preach that Jesus came in a wooden manger to die on a wooden cross. Any Christmas sermon that stops short of the Cross is not a Christian sermon at all, but instead a sentimental substitute.
Ryan Welsh is the Preaching Pastor at Redeemer Church in Bellevue, WA and Adjunct Professor of Bible Studies and Homiletics at Corban University in Salem, OR.