Christmas time is most often associated with joy and gladness and cheer. And rightly so. The reality that God became man is the fulfilment of Emmanuel, “God with us.” And for those who follow through with the whole Christmas story—all the way through Easter—“God with us” translates into “God for us.” This truly is joyful. This gives us sufficient cause for gladness. And yet. Yes, there is a “yet” that attaches to the cheers of Yuletide. We live in a broken world and, where there is brokenness, happiness is often hard to come by. Even at Christmas. Perhaps especially at Christmas. For many, including some reading this, Christmas may be troubling.
Christmas can be a time of deep loneliness for some. The death of loved ones can cast a shadow over the brightest lights of Christmas decorations. The heartache of being separated from family members can make it difficult to listen to the heralding of the singing angels. Seeing the opulence of many a Christmas celebration can pain the hungry heart of those bound in poverty. My heart is saddened each year as I drive to our Christmas service passing by men on street corners looking for work. They have no Christmas presents; they have no plans for a Christmas dinner. For them, 25 December is just another difficult day of the year. For them, Christmas is troubling.
In this study, I want to address the subject, “The Trouble with Christmas.” In fact, I will argue that, unless we are troubled by Christmas, unless we allow ourselves to be troubled by Christmas, we will never properly treasure Christmas.
The Christmas accounts in Scripture are troubling. They are fearful, even frightening. Though our Christmas songs are often bright and cheery (for good reason), nevertheless there was a lot of angst, a lot of fear, and even a lot of sorrow that accompanied that special event. The incarnation was rather disconcerting in many ways.
Consider the accounts surrounding the announcement and the actual birth of the Lord Jesus Christ and the tensions that accompany those texts.
We find the account of a young virgin who finds herself pregnant. Her betrothed finds her claims to virginity impossible to believe and so he resolves to end the betrothal (Matthew 1:18–19). Immediately, an angel tells Joseph not to be afraid (Matthew 1:20).
Herod was “troubled” at the Christmas message (Matthew 2:3). Joseph and Mary were forced to flee to Egypt for their son’s life (Matthew 2:13–15) and Herod responded with utter fury (Matthew 2:16) and resorted to infanticide in and around Bethlehem (Matthew 2:17–18). Even after Herod’s death, when Joseph sought to take his family back to Bethlehem, he found himself afraid to do so (Matthew 2:22). Christmas is a time of great joy for us; not so in Matthew’s Christmas account.
Luke’s account agrees with Matthew’s. Zechariah was troubled and needed to be told not to fear (Luke 1:12–13). When he did not believe the angel’s message, his gift was dumbness (Luke 1:20). Mary was likewise troubled at the Christmas announcement (Luke 1:29–30).
The first Christmas (Luke 2:1–7) was accompanied by an oppressive government with oppressive taxes. We read of poverty, misunderstanding and scorn. We read of Joseph and Mary’s homelessness—in the very place of his ancestry.
The shepherds were filled with fear (Luke 2:9–10) and the homeless newborn King was found lying in a manger (Luke 2:18–19). Newborn kings are to be found in a royal bedroom, not in a feeding trough. Joseph and Mary could afford only the most meagre of sacrifices (Luke 2:24) and Mary was told, on perhaps the happiest day of her life, that a sword would ultimately pierce her soul (Luke 2:34–35).
In these scriptural examples, we find some sixteen accounts where the news concerning the Advent was fearful and even heart-wrenching. They highlight the trouble with Christmas.
This is not intended to be a “bah, humbug” message, but rather one that honestly assesses the trouble with Christmas so that we might properly treasure Christmas.
The Trouble with Christmas is its Expectations
The first trouble with Christmas is its expectations:
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.”
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 Emmanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”
Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:
‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;
For out of you shall come a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”
Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.”
Christmas is a time filled with expectations. In fact, this is probably a large part of our enjoyment of the season. But sometimes those expectations don’t deliver. A child might anticipate receiving an electric racing car but instead receive socks and underwear. He obviously did not get what he wanted; perhaps, however, he got what he really needed. So it was that first Christmas.
Joseph expected to marry a virgin. But it appeared that that would not happen. He discovered that his fiancée was pregnant, and he knew that he was not the father. Despite her protestations to the contrary, he concluded that Mary had been unfaithful. So he “was minded to put her away secretly”—until, that is, he received a strange intervention, a heavenly one. He was informed by an angel that Mary was indeed pregnant, but that she was a virgin. She was carrying Messiah, the promised one who would save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). Joseph would be wed to Mary, but it will look much different than he had expected—all because of Christmas (Matthew 1:24–25). What he wanted was graciously trumped by what he needed: a Saviour. Because of Christmas, Joseph’s marriage would exceed his wildest expectations. Yes, Joseph was at first troubled by Christmas (Matthew 1:18–20) but he would forever treasure Christmas.
When Jesus enters our life, when we experience “God with us,” then our plans are usually unsettled. We may become the objects of scorn and ridicule. We may need to end some relationships as we form newer and healthier, because holier, ones. It may even cost us our employment and, in some cases (as in many parts of the world today), our lives. Yet the trouble with Christmas is worth it. Just ask Joseph—and any number believers you might know today.
Matthew 2 records some more trouble with Christmas.
Verse 3 informs us that “when Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” They heard that Christmas Day had come, and they were quite agitated and stirred up by this news. The word translated “troubled” is a strong word, which indicates a deeply disturbed and unsettled spirit. This is not the normal response to a well-wishing Christmas card announcing the reason for the season. But, then again, it is for many.
Herod was “troubled” because the arrival of Jesus threatened his ambitions. It was a threat to the status quo.
Herod was a self-absorbed and evil tyrant who understood that the arrival of the King (of any king as far as he was concerned) was a threat to his supposed autonomy. He would tolerate no rival to the way that he wanted to live. Therefore, the announcement of Christmas was troubling.
But it was not only Herod, for the text says that “all Jerusalem” shared this troubled response. Why?
In those days, messianic fervour had become a fever. The Jews were expecting a deliverer. But that deliverer would indeed upset the status quo, and many were fearful of the repercussions. Still others, perhaps the majority, were agitated in a good way. They received this news with the expectation that this newborn king would deliver them from all their problems. In any event, whether Herod or the Jews, they had wrong expectations about Christmas. Jesus did not come to challenge political rule, per se. He did not come as a revolutionary to lead the Jews to some geopolitical Promised Land. Rather, Jesus came to deliver His people from the kingdom of darkness to His kingdom, the kingdom of righteousness. He came to set up the kingdom of those for whom He would be born, and die, and be raised from the dead.
The trouble with Christmas is that it is a threat. The incarnation is a threat to our autonomy. The arrival of Jesus, the light of the world, exposes the sinful darkness of our hearts. This is why Christmas brings so much angst.
A particular school district in the United States recently censored biblical passages from being recited in the performance of A Charlie Brown Christmas play. The district claimed that they did not want to discriminate against any other religions, but the truth is, Christmas is a threat. The gospel is a threat. But it is a threat we need. We need to be troubled so that we will be delivered from the ultimate threat: the eternal wrath of God.
We make lousy lords; we are ill-equipped to be king of our life. Our kingdoms are feeble and so we need the Lord who was born King. Let us therefore treasure Christmas.
The Trouble with Christmas is the Presents
The second trouble with Christmas relates to the presents:
When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I like presents. I enjoy giving them, and I really enjoy receiving them! But sometimes the trouble with Christmas presents is that we are not sure what they are for. Or even what they are! One of my wife and I’s wedding gifts was like that. We didn’t know what it was, and never figured it out.
On the other hand, we might be offended by what the gift implies. For example, you might, never having requested it, receive a book on dieting, or a gym membership, or a gift certificate for a makeover, or a course on changing your personality. Your mother-in-law (or your husband!) might give you a cookbook. To paraphrase Scripture, out of the Christmas gifts, the giver speaks!
Perhaps another trouble with Christmas gifts is the extravagant expenditure. The Christmas gifts that Jesus received spoke volumes both about those who gave the gifts and about the one who was the receiver of the gifts.
First, they were precious and extravagant. Because the wise men realised the unique character of the child, their Christmas gifts were expensive. They were gifts worthy of a king. They did not spend too much. Jesus is to be treasured; He deserves our best. But they did not “over-spend.” And neither can you. Give Jesus Christ your life, your all.
Second, these gifts were prophetic. Frankincense and myrrh speak of sacrifice and suffering. Frankincense was used in various Old Testament sacrifices (Leviticus 2:2, 15–16; 6:15; 24:7). Myrrh was offered to Jesus as an anaesthetic when He was on the cross (Mark 15:23; John 19:39). The point is that Jesus was born in the shadow of the cross. Like all babies, Jesus was born to die—even though He did not deserve to die.
In all our gift-giving, let us keep the cross before us. Not in a morbid way, for the cross was the means of victory. Let’s not sentimentalise the Christmas story. Mary certainly did not (Luke 2:34–35).
Third, these gifts were providential. The gold would become the source of income for their sojourn in Egypt before returning to Nazareth, where Jesus would be raised. It was a present, yes. But rather than viewing it as a luxury to be hoarded, it was a means of getting the Word to the world—quite literally. It was a gift from God to be used for the progress of redemptive history.
With all our gift giving, let us remember that it is better to give than to receive. Jesus is our chief example and exhorter in this principle (Acts 20:35). Let us receive Christ and then let us give of our treasures that others might receive Him as well.
The Trouble with Christmas is the Sign
The third trouble with Christmas is the sign. Luke tells us of this:
And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.
Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.
Throughout history, there has been a great deal of controversy over Christmas. There are debates over the date of Christ’s birth and there are debates over the symbols of Christmas, especially concerning the use of Christmas trees. I will not enter into those troubling debates but will simply say that the best symbol of Christmas, the best sign to signify the incarnation, is a nativity scene. And particularly the babe in the manger. This was the sign provide by God for the first to worship Christ the King, the shepherds.
The angels revealed to the shepherds the clue to joining in the celebration of the incarnation: The Saviour was a baby who would be found “wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger” (v. 12). There was nothing unusual in those days about a baby wrapped tightly in “swaddling cloths.” The purpose was to keep the baby warm. But to find a newborn in a stable, lying in an animal’s feeding trough, was unusual. Especially a royal baby. Divinely royal.
Feeding troughs are normally found in or near a barn, an unusual place for an expected messiah to be born, and certainly not the expected place to find the Lord. Temples, not troughs, are where one normally looks for divinity. One would not expect to find a king divested of His glorious robes. Consider the birth of Prince George.
The latest news is the fancy Spanish sweater that he wore for their family Christmas photo and the select nursery school he will be attending. Contrast that with the King of glory, who laid aside his royal robes and who took on the form of a man, the form of a servant, who would die the humiliating death of the cross. Yes, this was a significant sign, and a troubling one for those who have ears to hear. But the troubling announcement is not so troubling if you know the Old Testament. Then it makes perfect sense. For you see, the prophesied Saviour is the prophesied Lamb (see Genesis 22); the Lamb whom John tells us was slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). Messiah, the Saviour who is Christ the Lord, is the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Where else would shepherds expect to find a newborn lamb?
This sign points to what these shepherds were very familiar with: sacrifice.
Many commentators have surmised that these shepherds were probably in charge of caring for flocks for the required Passover lambs, as well as for other prescribed sacrificial sheep. So, as they contemplated the Lamb in the manger, perhaps they had an inkling of His purpose. This was troubling. And yet it was essential. For the song would lose its force if the sign is not fulfilled. The Lamb must die if there would be peace on earth, goodwill to men.
As we contemplate the babe away in the manger, with no crib for a bed, we should be troubled at the inhospitality of the world into which He came. John tells us quite bluntly, “He came to His own, but His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11). This is troubling. It should trouble you if you have not received Him. You are rejecting, not a cute and cuddly baby, but rather the Lord of glory. You are, in fact, rejecting your Creator (John 1:1–5). But, thankfully, this need not be the last word. For, as John also informs us, “as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name” (John 1:12).
These shepherds listened to the heavenly messengers and responded in faith. They came to Jesus. Will you? You have heard the heavenly message from an earthly messenger. Like the shepherds, may you see this thing—this strange and yet marvellously true thing—which has come to pass, which the Lord today has made known to you (v. 15).
I remember years ago preaching one of my first Christmas messages in South Africa. In the front row sat a man who, while somewhat religious, was what you might call a submarine Christian—one who surfaced only at Christmas and Easter. That day, he heard the gospel and God grabbed a hold of his heart. I still remember him sitting there with tears streaming down his face as he submitted to the Saviour. Just a few short months later he died, and today he worships in the very presence of the angels.
The Trouble with Christmas is the Song(s)
The fourth trouble with Christmas has to do with the songs: “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, goodwill toward men!’” (Luke 2:13–14).
The angelic choir that performed for the shepherds sang a very strange lyric, one that seems to cause great consternation for Bible translators: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” This stanza is troubling on a couple of counts.
First, just where is this proclaimed and promised peace? Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem that has become the beloved song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” He wrote the song shortly after his son was almost paralysed in the American civil war. A few years earlier he had lost his wife in a tragic accident. The poem he wrote focused on the settledness of confident hope in the midst of even the bleakest despair. He wrote,
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!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound, the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn, the households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
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!”
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.”
How many will die this Christmas Day in violence, both here at home and abroad? How many children will die of malnourishment? How many thousands will grieve as they bury their child having died of an easily curable disease? How many wives and girlfriends will be beaten by a drunken husband or boyfriend? Like the poet Longfellow, perhaps today we bow our head in despair and lament, “There is no peace on earth.”
But though, at one level, we would be correct, yet on another level we would be completely wrong, for God has provided, is providing, and will provide peace: peace with God and the peace of God because of God’s goodwill to men. This brings us to the next and related observation.
The second troubling issue concerns the translations of this verse. This verse is translated various ways: “and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased” (ESV); “and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (NASB); “and on earth peace to men on whom His favour rests” (NIV). Pulling these together it is clear that the first Christmas carol was celebrating that God gives peace to those that He chooses to show favour: the favour of salvation. And this peace, this shalom, is experienced among the community of those on whom God has bestowed His saving favour: the church. And as we understand this, then the song makes perfect sense, and we are no longer troubled by this lyric.
You see, there is peace on earth today. The majority reading this are no doubt at peace with God because of the gospel of God, which required the incarnation. There is peace in homes represented here because of the glad tidings of great joy. There is peace, harmony and wellbeing today among people of various ethnic groups. This peace is reflected among all people worldwide today—all because of the gospel.
And though the sorrow of the situations I mentioned earlier still abounds, nevertheless this is not the final Christmas celebration in history. The gospel is advancing. There will be more peace on earth because of God’s goodwill and favour, which He will show to all peoples. And it is our responsibility to respond like the shepherds and to make this truth “widely known” (v. 17).
The Trouble with Christmas is that People are Not Troubled by Christmas
Finally, the trouble with Christmas is that people are not troubled by Christmas. Luke records the words of Mary’s praise when he writes,
And Mary said: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation.”
Ah yes, Christmas can be troubling. And it should be. After all, consider the reality of God coming close to man. this is frightening! Being confronted with glory is a heavily troubling thing. Or at least, it should be.
The reality of the threat to our own autonomous kingdom is troubling. The threat to the status quo is troubling.
Consider, further, the reality of the unexpected. When Jesus comes to us it will mean radical change. Change is troubling.
Consider the reality of the unexplainable. The supernatural is troubling. The new birth cannot be explained. But it can be believed.
The cross is troubling (Luke 2:34–35). In fact, it must be. We must be troubled by Christmas if we will come to properly treasure Christmas. We must fear the Lord if we will have His mercy.
It is interesting how, on numerous occasions, those who were initially troubled by Christmas were told to no longer be troubled. In each case, trouble was replaced with trust. In each case, those who were so troubled responded in faith to God’s Word and their trust calmed their troubles. So it remains today.
In The Charlie Brown Christmas, there is a part where Linus, who is always carrying his security blanket with him, recites Luke 2 when asked about the meaning of Christmas. As he recites the words “fear not,” he drops his blanket. I suspect that that was deliberately placed. As he focused on the reality of Christmas, he realised that he had no need to fear.
If you will trust the Lord Jesus Christ, you will no longer be troubled by the wrath of God. Rather than being agitated and disturbed and troubled by the gospel, you will treasure it. By the grace of God, you will treasure the Gift of Christmas.
To use another metaphor, we need to be wounded before we can be healed. In fact, He needed to be wounded before we could be healed.
The Bible declares that this babe in a manger grew to adulthood, living a perfectly sinless life every step of the way. Then the unthinkable occurred: He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was laid on Him and by His stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:5–6).
As we have seen, the ultimate trouble with Christmas is that it foreshadowed the cross. The glory of Christmas Day would one day culminate in the gore of another day, which we call Good Friday.
As the sinless Son of God hung on the cross, suffering the wrath of God for sinners, the prophesied sword pierced the soul of His mother Mary (Luke 2:25). At that moment, she was no doubt reminded about the trouble with Christmas.
But three days later all of that was forgotten as Jesus rose from the dead to die no more. And from that day all those who, like Mary, believe on the Son, will treasure Christmas. It is for this reason that we do “trouble” ourselves with Christmas. It is worth the trouble because of the treasure to which it points.
Friend, there can be no joy of Christmas without the sorrow of Good Friday. Have you come to the cross? Have you seen the empty tomb, knowing that Jesus died and rose for you? May this be the day when God opens your eyes to the trouble with Christmas. From this day you may properly treasure Christmas.
And one final word to those who know Christ and yet are troubled by Christmas. Please let the incarnation, the miracle of Christmas, be a source of comfort to you. Though your heart is troubled, let the treasure of Christmas—the Lord Jesus Christ and His salvation—give you pause and cause to rejoice in God’s unspeakable gift. Because of Christmas, history is going somewhere. And one day all will be well. Do you believe in God? Believe also in Christ (John 14:1–4). For Christians, “God with us” means “God for you.” That is something to treasure.