I like Christmas. At its very best, Christmas is a promise. It is enjoying time with family and friends … meals … laughing together … exchanging gifts … worshiping together. I think all of these are a glimpse of things to come, a promise of something better. It is really a promise of heaven.
Ever since childhood, I have believed in the promise of Christmas. I believed that Christmas spoke of something greater, of something more important. As a boy, I remember one Christmas with my mom when we were living in a hotel in Newport Beach, Calif. I woke up on Christmas morning excited about opening my presents. But my mom was passed out from a night of drinking, and the room smelled of alcohol and stale smoke. There was an artificial white Christmas tree, lit by a slowly rotating wheel that changed the tree from one color to another. I looked around and thought, It has to get better than this. I believed that Christmas spoke of something greater.
What Christmas really speaks of is that we can have a relationship with Jesus Christ. Really, that is the primary message of Christmas: God came to us. As Matthew’s gospel says, “So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God with us'” (Matthew 1:22–23 NKJV).
The message of Christmas is not “Let it snow” or “Let us shop.” It is “Let us worship.” Why? Because God is with us. The first Christmas gifts were not presented by the wise men to the Child. The first gift of Christmas was the gift of Jesus Christ from God to us: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
It is all about Immanuel, and it means this: You will never be alone in life again. Jesus said, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him” (John 14:23). That is an amazing statement. God the Father and God the Son are saying they want to make their home with you and me.
Jesus also said, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). That is a promise to all people that we will never be alone again. Why? Because God is with us. Jesus said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5 NLT). If you were to translate that from the original language, it would read something like this: “I will never, no never, no never leave you or forsake you.” Christmas is about undoing loneliness. He will be with you on the happy days. He will be with you on the sad days. He will be with you on the hard days. He will be with you through all of your days. Then, he will be waiting for you on the other side to welcome you into glory. You don’t have to be afraid because God is with you.
Maybe this will be a difficult Christmas for you this year. Maybe your marriage fell apart and you are alone. God is with you. Maybe your kids have forgotten about you this year. But God hasn’t forgotten about you. God is with you. Maybe your parents have forgotten about you. But God your Father hasn’t forgotten about you.
Sometimes people have asked me how to get through the holidays after they have lost a loved one. Is there some book they can read? My answer is they don’t need a manual – they need Immanuel. They need to know that God is there. They need to lean into him. That is the essential message of this holiday season: that God came near. He came to this earth. He breathed our air. He lived our life. He died our death.
A song that is often sung at this time of the year is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” written by the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day in 1864. His son had run away the year before to join the Union army and had been severely wounded. Longfellow’s wife, Frances, had died in a fire in 1861. Wanting to pull himself out of his despair, he wrote down the words,
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
As he thought how bleak things were in the nation and how hard things were in his life, he wrote,
And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
But then, gaining an eternal perspective, Longfellow wrote these words:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
I love those words: “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; the Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail. …” One day in heaven, all the wrongs will be righted. All the questions will be answered. One day, the promise of Christmas will be fulfilled in heaven.
If we put too much into the Christmas holiday itself, we will be disappointed. Christmas can’t deliver on its promises. It is not the fault of Christmas per se. It is really our fault. We have built it up so much in our minds that no single event ever could deliver what we really want. Christmas cannot bring harmony to our homes. Christmas cannot bring peace on earth. Christmas cannot bring happiness. But Christ can do all of this and more.
That is what we are longing for, deep down inside – not Christmas, but Christ. Not merriment, but the Messiah. Not goodwill, but God. Not presents, but God’s presence in our lives. Anyone or anything short of that will disappoint.