I have always believed in the promise of Christmas. There is something very special, wonderful and even magical – in the best use of that word – at this time of the year. And that goes back to my earliest childhood. Ever since I was a little boy, I have believed in the promise of Christmas.
With Christmas we have a sense of wonder, beauty and anticipation. We look forward to being with loved ones, family and friends, and eating incredible food. It is a wonderful time of the year. It is also a time that is marked, for the most part, by an absence of meanness.
But does Christmas really deliver on its promises? Sometimes it does, a little bit here and a little bit there. But for the most part, Christmas doesn’t really deliver. In fact, what it delivers is a lot of difficulty. A study was actually done by a British psychologist who found that shopping is hazardous for men’s health. Male volunteers from ages 22 to 79 were tested by going out Christmas shopping. The volunteers’ blood pressure shot up to levels that normally would be seen in fighter pilots going into combat. But in the same test using female volunteers, there was no change in their blood pressure at all.
Then there is always the inevitable letdown at Christmas. You weren’t able to get for others what you really wanted to get them. Or, you didn’t really receive what you were hoping for. And then the bills start arriving.
As a child, I always wanted a family Christmas. I would watch the programs on television where families would gather around the table and carve the turkey and give out the presents. But growing up, I never really had a stable family. I remember one Christmas in particular when we were sitting around the tree, and my mom was passed out from drinking too much. Christmas music was playing in the background, and there was the smell of stale smoke and alcohol in the air. As I was looking at that little, fake white tree with one of those turning wheels and multicolored panes, I thought, It has got to get better than this.
So what is Christmas at its worst? Well, it is a crass, commercial, empty, exhausting and very expensive ritual that drags on for months at a time. What is Christmas at its best? It is a glimpse of things to come: the beauty … the wonderful music … the adoring angels … the love … the warmth … the promise … the hope. Because really, when you get down to it, Christmas is a promise. It is a promise that has not yet been completely fulfilled.
Our version of Christmas, this occasion that we celebrate, can’t deliver on its promise. It is really not the fault of Christmas; it is our fault. We have built it up so much in our minds that no single event ever could really deliver what we are anticipating. Christmas cannot bring harmony to your home. Christmas cannot bring peace on earth. Christmas cannot bring happiness. But Christ himself can do all of this and more. And that is what we are really longing for deep inside. That is what I mean when I say Christmas is a promise. It is a promise of Christ. That is what we need.
We don’t need merriment; we need the Messiah. We don’t need goodwill, so to speak; we need God. We don’t need presents; we need His presence. And anything short of this ultimately will disappoint. But God never will. So let God comfort you at this time of the year – even if you have lost a loved one, as I have.
The primary message of Christmas is that God came to us. Speaking of the future birth of Christ, the prophet Isaiah said, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14 NKJV). “Immanuel” means “God with us” (see Matthew 1:23).
The message of the season is not “Let it snow” or even “Let us shop.” The real message is, “Let us worship.” That is what the wise men came to do. “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” they said. “For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him” (Matthew 2:2 NKJV).
Immanuel: God with us. That is a staggering thought. And that is really the essence of the Christian faith and the Christian life. All other religious ideas essentially tell you that you must do something. Do this and you will find inner peace. Do this and you will reach nirvana. Do this and maybe you will make it to heaven. But Christianity says it is done – done for you at the cross, paid for by the blood of Jesus Christ.
The message of Christmas is not only that God is with us, but that God comes in us. Being a Christian is not merely following a creed; it is having Christ himself live in you and through you, giving you the strength to be the man or woman he has called you to be.
God is with us. And that is important to know, because there are times when we will go through some great difficulties. The psalmist said, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (Psalm 139:7–10 NIV). The Bible never teaches that we will have a problem and pain-free life as a follower of Christ. But the Bible does teach that we will never be alone.
And that is the message this world needs to hear: Immanuel – God is with us.
Maybe your marriage is falling apart right now. God is with you. Maybe your children have forgotten about you or your parents have forgotten about you, and you feel all alone. God is with you. Maybe you feel isolated. God is with you.
That is the message of Christmas.