Tomorrow is Christmas! How does thinking about that make you feel? Excited as a child who just can’t wait? Calm as a queen who has everything under control? Or as panicky as an arachnophobic in a cellar full of spiders?
Are you making your list and checking it twice? If you’re like me, you’re making multiple lists: lists of gifts, groceries, and gatherings; lists for decorating and baking, lists for cooking and cleaning.
Maybe you’re not stressed with lots of hectic activities, but the Christmas season is a difficult time of year for you…perhaps due to uncomfortable family dynamics…or perhaps because this is the first—or yet another—year without the loved one you miss so much. For whatever reason, you may be thinking, “If I can just get through Christmas Day…or through New Year’s Eve, then I can relax.” But if that’s the way you’re thinking, you’re missing a lot of the joy that’s supposed to accompany this season. Even if you’re not longing for the holidays to be over, you may simply feel as if something’s missing during this Christmas season.
That’s why I’d like to consider with you the concept of Christmas rest. Does that sound like an oxymoron? Christmas cheer, Christmas joy, Christmas festivity, those are all familiar phrases. But Christmas rest? That sounds kind of strange. What do I really mean by that?
Rest is a concept found throughout the Bible, from Genesis, which records our Lord’s first creative work, to the book of Revelation, which depicts his final consummating return. And, although he calls us to rest in a special way every Sunday, he also calls us to rest in him daily. Psalm 37:7 encourages us to “Rest in the Lord.”
In Jeremiah 6:16, the Lord tells us, “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”
Isn’t rest for your soul something you desire, especially during the Christmas season? We find rest for our souls by trusting totally in our triune God. That means depending more on our heavenly Father and worrying less about our earthly future. It means becoming more aware of the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts, helping us obey God’s word out of joyful gratitude instead of begrudging duty. It means relying on the finished work of Jesus Christ instead of living by our own work. When we rest in Jesus, we step off the dead-end treadmill of trying to earn our salvation or God’s favor. Resting in the completed work of Christ’s atonement colors the way we observe Christmas.
Looking at the etymology of the word “Christmas” helps us see the link between Christ’s atoning sacrifice and the concept of Christmas rest. The word “Christmas” was formed by joining “Christ” with “mass,” which already in the Middle Ages was the Roman Catholic Church’s public celebration of the Eucharist (the sacrament Protestant churches now call the Lord’s Supper or communion). The church originally celebrated Christmas as sacramental worship.
If we pause for a moment to think about how that compares to our modern culture and the way it celebrates Christmas, does it seem as if Christmas these days is less “mass” and more “mess”?
Believers originally commemorated Christ’s birth by remembering his death. Does that seem like kind of a downer? Not if we bear in mind that Christ’s death paid the penalty for our sins and purchased our salvation. There is nothing we can do to earn salvation. It is a free gift. Now that’s a reason to celebrate!
If Jesus had been merely a teacher, whose wise sayings were recorded, we might treasure his wisdom, but we’d have no reason to celebrate his birth. But he was far more. He was God who became man. That’s why we celebrate the incarnation, when Jesus became a real human being and walked on this earth. John 1:14 says about 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” (ESV).
Sometimes those lovely nativity sets in our homes can give us the wrong impression about the incarnation. The incarnated Christ was more than a perfect porcelain baby with outstretched arms. He was a real baby, whose body developed in his mother’s womb. Her labor contractions pushed him down the birth canal to be born like any other baby.
But Christmas is about more than a genuine human infant. Immanuel means “God with us.” Immanuel is “God with us” then and “God with us” now. “God with us” as a baby lying in the manger and “God with us” as a man hanging on the cross. “God with us” as the resurrected and ascended Lord sitting at God’s right hand…right now.
The Prince of heaven brought peace to earth. He secured our salvation by dying for our sins. He conquered death by rising from the grave. And he rules supreme by reigning at God’s right hand. There he perfects our prayers and pleads for us with the father. He answers Satan’s accusations against us by saying, “That sin is covered. I paid for it on the cross.”
We don’t have to live the perfect life or be the perfect wife. Jesus paid for all our sins. We don’t have to earn our salvation, Jesus did it all. We don’t have to work for God’s favor. Jesus secures it for us all day, every day. We can rest in him.
When we focus on the living Christ and less on the cultural mess, we’ll be able to find Christmas rest in all our celebration, in all our sorrow, and even in all our stress.
Isaiah’s prophecy in his ninth chapter speaks in sometimes graphic language about this world’s mess, but points us past the horror of war to the Prince of Peace:
But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this (Isaiah 9:1-7, ESV).
Thank you, Lord, for your great gift of Immanuel, God with us. In this busy Christmas season, help us remember your ultimate gift as the reason for our gifts. Help us rest in Jesus not only as a past present, but also as a present person. Help us focus more on Christ and less on the mess.
Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free. From our fears and sins release us. Let us find our rest in thee. Amen.
The above meditation is a revised version of a devotional delivered 12-9-2012 at the Union Park Baptist Church Christmas Tea and is the property of Glenda Mathes. Please feel free to link to this URL.