Avoiding Holiday Dysfunction

Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes! Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments (Psalm 119:5-6, ESV).

The holiday season is one of the worst for depression. The contrast between the joyful facades that are supposed to accompany the season and the painful realities we feel increases our sadness. Then there are the obligatory, but awkward, family gatherings that often highlight the dysfunctions of our relatives (or, sometimes, ourselves). We genuinely love them but recognize that their drug, alcohol, relational, or financial struggles are ultimately the product of their own decisions. It is difficult to sympathize while holding our tongues so that we are not perceived as being judgmental. To avoid these subjects, the conversation turns to football, the entertainment turns to new movies opening on Christmas Day (that connection is not coincidental), and the parties turn to alcohol.

Despite our best efforts we cannot eliminate the dysfunctions of our families. At best we can merely minimize our own dysfunctions. Although he dealt with problems of his own, King David recognized the best method for avoiding them — fixing our eyes on God’s commandments and keeping them (see Ps. 119:5-6, emphasis added).

This was the same recipe that the Lord gave to Moses to give to the children of Israel,
“Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” (Deuteronomy 32:46-47,ESV, emphasis added).

After Moses died and Joshua assumed the leadership position, the Lord told him the same thing, “[be] careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Joshua 1:7-8, ESV, emphasis added).

Not surprisingly, Jesus said the same thing in His first public address, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” (Matthew 7:24-27, ESV, emphasis added).

This list of significant Bible characters could go on and on, but the point is made. Reading, thinking about, and obeying the Word of God is the key to avoiding a dysfunctional life. Many Christians try to read the Bible cover to cover each year, but (sadly) far more have never read it even once. Whether you purpose to read the whole of the Scripture each year is not the point. Immersing yourself each day in some part of it with the purpose of obeying it will go a long way toward keeping your family members from being embarrassed by your struggles next Christmas.

The Purpose of Christ’s Coming

And now the LORD says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him— for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength— he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:5-6 ESV).

This year I started reading the prophecy of Isaiah on December 1 — two chapters each day. It was not intentional but this practice led me to read this passage, “he who formed me from the womb,” on Christmas day. Interestingly, the reference here is to Christ himself, the one whose emergence from the womb we commemorate on Christmas.

Some scholars have described this passage as the Old Testament’s Great Commission. Christ’s coming was not simply so that we could have a quaint and sentimental celebration. His coming was to enlighten the nations to his Truth. He did not come just for Israel, He came for the whole world. That is at least part of the significance of the visit of the non-Jewish Magi in Matthew 2. Simeon told Mary and Joseph that their Baby would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” in Luke 2:32.

Christian orthodoxy teaches that the heart of man is inherently selfish. We tend to gravitate to what will please ourselves; we look at life from a lens that magnifies the implications of decisions on ourselves; we have trouble taking the focus off of our needs and putting the needs of others first. That is why Isaiah quotes God as saying to the incarnate Messiah, “It is too small a thing to just consider the needs of Israel; I want you to reach all of the nations.”

This inherent selfishness in fallen man is how the enemy of our souls keeps us from seeing the real purpose of Messiah’s coming. We focus on the gifts coming to us rather than the Gift that came to redeem a lost world. We are told that the physical needs of the materially less fortunate are more important than the redemptive needs of those who have never heard. By giving to material needs there can be an immediate gratification to our souls — we feel good about ourselves when we give, and we feed a subtle pride that suggests that we are better than others because we can give when, perhaps, they cannot.

There is never anything wrong with giving — we need to give; we should give; God desires that we give. We simply must guard against the pride that wells up inside as we imagine that WE gave, that others — including God — are dependent upon US.

Messiah’s purpose in coming was not to selfishly restore just His own people — His mission was to the whole world. This wasn’t the after thought to His life, death, and resurrection, as if Jesus happened to say, “BTW, before I leave, go out and tell people about Me now that I have risen.” It was the primary purpose of His incarnation.

The Incarnation of Jesus

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. (Hebrews 1:1-2, ESV)

Christians celebrate Christmas because it commemorates the incarnation of our Lord. Through this event the Creator God stepped into space and time and became a man, experiencing all of the joys and heartaches of human experience. Joseph, the man charged with the responsibility of caring for the infant Savior, was told that His name would be Jesus because He would “save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

The writer of the book of Hebrews began his letter by expressing the purpose of the incarnation a bit differently, saying that “[God] has spoken to us by His Son.” He wanted us to understand that Jesus’ purpose on earth was “to speak,” that is, to communicate (or reveal) the nature of the Godhead to men. To do so, as the rest of the book of Hebrews explains, Jesus had to leave the substantive world and enter ours, a world of forms and shadows, mere copies of the real and eternal. The incarnate Son revealed the real world.

At first, these two purposes seem to be unrelated — perhaps not at odds with each other, but certainly not supporting each other, as we would expect in the Scripture. A significant part of this disconnect stems from a misunderstanding of what God meant for men to be saved from their sins. For many in this era, to be saved means to have a happy place to go to when they die. It will be a place where their favorite foods will be served, where my neighbors (when I was a youth) used to hope they could set up their cribbage board and spend eternity in their favorite pastime. Certainly it will be a place where the sorrows and heartaches of this life will be over, where we won’t have to contend with sin any more, and where Jesus’ righteous reign will replace the flawed and dysfunctional government of this world.

The writer to the Hebrews, however, recognized that Jesus’ incarnation was more than a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card or even a season pass (eternally renewed) to the happiest place in the universe — it was the entrance of our Creator into human experience. He would “sympathize with our weaknesses” (4:15; 5:2); He would know what it was to struggle to be obedient (5:8); and through His intercession on our behalf (because He understands the human experience), He would be able to save us “to the uttermost” (7:25), not just from the penalty of our sin.

When we have a proper understanding of the biblical concept of salvation there is no conflict between the statement of the angel to Joseph and the purpose outlined by the writer to the Hebrews. Salvation involves an intimacy with the Godhead made possible only because God entered into that experience with us. The transformed Apostle Paul could write, then, that all of the perks of this world were mere rubbish in light of “knowing” Jesus (Phil 3:8-11). The Psalmist, Asaph, recognized that, of all that the world offered, the Lord Himself was “His portion” (Ps 73:26). And Solomon told us that there is a “friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24).

Christmas is ultimately not about stables and mangers, wise men and gifts — it is about a God who wants to enter into an intimate relationship with those He created in His own image. He experienced our world so that we could experience His.

The Music of Christmas

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13-14, ESV).

While my previous blog highlighted some of the things I don’t like about the American Christmas holidays in this era, there are some really wonderful parts to it as well, especially the music that often accompanies the season.

There is no other time of the year when familiar strains of music exalting the Savior are played in public venues. Regularly I pray that someone’s heart would awaken when they hear, “Hallelujah! for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth,” or “I know that my Redeemer liveth…” Even the most hardened pagan can understand the message despite the antiquated, Shakespearean forms of these verbs. Perhaps the Holy Spirit will open the heart of a person to ponder the question, “What Child is this who laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?” Why did the “angels greet [Him] with anthems sweet while shepherds watch are keeping”?

For us who believe in Jesus, these lyrics give us opportunities to speak of the substance of the Christian Gospel while the rest of the world is merely “fa-la-la-ing” among their boughs of holly. Despite the political correctness of this world, the traditional carols (so far) are still considered part of our cultural celebration, so that the thoughtful pagan reveler might actually begin to link the celebration with Jesus, the King of Kings, rather than Santa Claus, the benevolent home invader.

I also pray for the innocent child who hears about the Baby Jesus and asks his/her parents why there is such a fuss over this Baby. What makes Him special? Perhaps the Lord will use the discomfort in the child’s parents over an innocent question to make them consider what really is the “mercy mild” that this Baby brought to reconcile God and sinners. Maybe the Lord will awaken their hearts to realize that they themselves are the sinners that He came to reconcile to Himself!

Even if the person doesn’t respond to the Gospel through the text of the familiar lyrics, the lyrics will have accomplished their purpose. It will be a sad scene for some as they stand before the throne of God on that day, as they try to justify their rejection of Christ by claiming that they had never heard the Gospel message. I can imagine the Lord stopping them mid-sentence (Rom 3:19) and bringing to their remembrance the music they heard in the mall or on their secular radio station that told them to “Fall on their knees” before the incarnate Son who became flesh on that holy night.

I know that there is much Christmas music these days that is pseudo-Christian or downright secular which we all enjoy, which highlights the cultural aspects of the season. We innocently dream of the white Christmases depicted by the Currier and Ives paintings while quietly wishing for a tender Tennessee celebration so that we don’t have to fight the weather. Nostalgically we can even smell the pumpkin pies, even if we are not originally from Pennsylvania. But I love the music of Christmas because inevitably we are drawn back to the stable near the overcrowded inn where Mary’s little boy-child was born so that men can live forevermore if they put their trust in Him.

Don’t Forget Jesus

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14, ESV).

It’s almost sacrilegious to say, but sometimes I find the Christmas season almost nauseating. It’s not that I don’t like the Christmas treats, and my wife is a great cook, along with all the others whose goodies I partake of. What I find nauseating is the endless repetition of the phrase, “the true meaning of Christmas,” when those spouting such drivel don’t know or won’t tell us what Christmas really does mean. My struggle is the willingness of men to focus on the trappings of Christmas while ignoring the Holiday.

It is NOT merely an opportunity to give gifts or do good to others. Don’t misunderstand — we are called upon to give and to do good for our fellow man, but that is true in every season of the year.

It is also NOT merely a chance to reflect upon how blessed we are. Yet during this season many people let these blessings proudly inflate their inner Scrooge by comparing themselves to the homeless or others in their family, or by how much they can deduct from their tax bill through end-of-the-year giving. Again, I say, there is nothing wrong with traditions of helping the less fortunate or visiting family or charitable giving. But these are not “the true meaning of Christmas.”

All of the things we will hear about the “true meaning of Christmas” are merely smoke and mirror devices used by the enemy of our souls to distract us from Jesus. In fact, some of the traditional religious institutions surrounding Christmas have become so familiar that we lose sight of Him.

The piety of Mary and Joseph that led the Lord to honor them by being the Messiah’s parents has given way to the idea that Christmas is now an occasion to provide for a homeless couple. No one denies the importance of helping the homeless, but that is not the lesson to be drawn from the narrative — it’s not “the true meaning of Christmas.”

The Christmas lights that used to remind us that Jesus is the light of the world are now the subject of TV special contests (complete with large financial prizes) to see who can create the most spectacular display. There are people who work year round to engineer these home decorations, without a thought (apparently) of Jesus. But we will hear them or some reporter explain that this is “the true meaning of Christmas.”

We could go on and on with the Christmas traditions that have been distorted to distract us from Jesus. The true meaning of Christmas involves Jesus’ willingness to lay aside the glory that was rightfully His to come to rescue mankind from sin. In that act He demonstrated the patient and giving nature of our Creator who fulfilled the plan that He had in mind from the moment Adam and Eve disobeyed in the Garden. That act also demonstrated the power of God to overcome the pride of men who falsely imagine that the world revolves around them. It’s not just a cliche — Jesus really is the reason for the season. Let us not forget Him.

When I Think of Christmas…

…I think of the Normandy Invasion, commonly known as D-Day. Years of planning went into that event. First, and the most obvious, was physically amassing the men and equipment needed to pull off the invasion. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers, landing boats, airplanes, troop transports, weapons and ammunition, communication devices, food and medical supplies all were assembled despite the threat of German U-Boats that were intent on preventing the invasion.

Then there was the element of strategy. How could the Allies pull off a surprise invasion when the Germans knew that it would happen and would fortify the likely landing zone? We know now that the Allies used quiet gliders under the cover of darkness to allow the paratroopers to drop in behind the German fortifications and take the battle to them from both sides. Our leaders created a unique communication device – a clicker – so that the paratroopers could communicate with one another in the dark. They also used the Navajo language to securely communicate information because of the difficulty of breaking this code.

Finally there was the sacrifice. The loss of life would be great; the human suffering would be greater. But the goal of freedom required it.

Amid the quiet scenes of Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus in the manger, we tend to forget that there’s a war raging. It’s a war where the two sides have clearly defined goals: freedom, on the one side; tyranny, on the other.

For centuries the Triune God had been preparing for the invasion of His Son into the world so the intense battle could begin and the final victory won. Just as the Allies in WWII amassed the soldiers and equipment, so God prepared the players for His Invasion: the Roman peace, the Greek culture, the Jewish religion, a godly virgin woman, a morally upstanding fiancé.

Then there was the strategy. Despite the prophecies, the enemy of our souls never dreamed that the Deliverer would come in the innocence of a Baby. Perhaps Satan was looking for the Father to put His endorsement on a prophet or priest, already in the Jewish system. But he never dreamed that the Triune God would Himself take on human flesh to become one of His subjects. The defenses of the enemy – a brutal political world and a legalistic religious system – were no match for the strategy of the Incarnation.

But the War could not be won without sacrifice. Our soldiers at D-Day laid aside their comfortable surroundings for the hardship of war, in many cases not returning. But freedom was at stake. Our Lord laid aside the prerogatives of His heavenly home – the fellowship with the Father, the honor and majesty of His position – to come to this war zone and fight – again, because our freedom was at stake.

The pictures in our old newspapers of the joy of our returning soldiers after WWII are indelibly impressed upon our minds, as they should be. But how much greater will be the victory parade in heaven when the King of Kings rightfully assumes His place.Jesus…although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:5-11).