Christmas is a letdown. Or at least, Christmas can be a letdown. Christmas can leave you filled with excitement and joy and delight and wonder, but it can also leave you feeling empty and dried up inside. Christmas can be a letdown.
Christmas, as a child, was a time of anticipation and excitement. As a child, it seemed like the entire month of December -- no, the entire year -- was nothing more than a lead-in to that wonderful day. I get to relive that now, as a parent, with my four-year-old son repeatedly asking, "Is Christmas here yet? Is tomorrow Christmas? How many more days until Christmas?" The day after Thanksgiving he announced to me, "I can't wait to go to Nana and Papa's house on Christmas, so Aunt Dorothy can give me my present!"
I remember all of those feelings. I remember sitting in our living room one evening -- probably I was about my son's age -- staring at the ornaments on the mantel over the fireplace, and thinking to myself, "Christmas will never get here." Of course, it did come, and has come about 44 more times since then!
The anticipation was agony. The days leading up to Christmas were not days to be savored; they were days to suffer through impatiently while waiting for the arrival of that glorious day. But oh, when that day arrived, what delight! What joy! The pleasure of pulling candy, trinkets, and toys out of our stockings -- and (for one day out of the year) being allowed to have sugary cereals like Lucky Charms and Cocoa Puffs for breakfast! And then, the tree. Looking at every gift and wondering... "Is this one mine?" "What's in that box?"
But even as a child, there was a sense of letdown at the end. When there are only four presents left under the tree, and then three, and you're wondering if maybe one of them is for you, and then one goes to your brother, and one to your mother, and then there's just one left, and maybe it has your name on it, but no....it's for your brother again...and then there's nothing left under the tree.
The disappointment was short-lived, however, because there were trains and cars and coloring books to play with, and cousins and grandparents and aunts and uncles to see, and food to eat, and at the end of the day you find yourself thinking, "Oh, man! Twelve more months until we get to do this again. Christmas will never get here!"
As we get older, Christmas changes. It changes because we change. Our hopes change. Our desires change. Our responsibilities change.
One of the changes is a change I love. Anticipation is no longer agony. The anticipation is still there, but every day of December is not something to be suffered through on the way to the 25th -- every day is a day to be savored. The trek into the woods for a tree. Every Christmas carol sung. Every decoration hung. Every wondering question from my son are all moments to be faced with delight. Anticipation has become fun. In some ways, December 1st through December 24th are as wonderful as December 25th.
But still, Christmas can be a letdown. We no longer get the gifts our hearts crave with passionate desire; we get the gifts we need: socks, shirts, socket wrenches, vacuum cleaners. Not that we aren't glad to get the things we need, but our hearts don't leap with delight in the same way.
And we face Christmas with an understanding of responsibility. With an awareness that when the family gathering is over, and the children are all playing with brand new toys, you'll have a kitchen full of dirty dishes, and you'll be using that vacuum cleaner to do battle against the post-Christmas mess. You face Christmas with the awareness that every ornament will have to be packed away, the tree hauled out to the woods to rot, and every fir needle, every strand of tinsel, will need to be swept away. You face Christmas with the awareness that tomorrow there will still be bills that need to be paid. And for many, there is a darkness to Christmas, as you face it without the loved ones you shared this holiday with for many years.
So yes, Christmas can be a letdown.
I don't think that's surprising, and I don't think it's a bad thing, either. After all, I think the very first Christmas was also a letdown. Let me explain.
For centuries, God's people had waited, with great anticipation, for the coming of the king, the Christ, the ruler who would ride in on a white war horse and solve all the world's problems. The promise was there from the very beginning, when God promised that a descendent of the human race would crush the serpent's head. The promise was there in Deuteronomy when God announced that a prophet of unsurpassed greatness would someday come. The promise was there in 2 Samuel, when God promised that the throne of David would endure forever.
And when life was hard (and life was always hard!) the people would think, "This would be a perfect time for the king to come charging in on his white horse and rescue us from the Philistines. Or the Ammonites. Or the Moabites." And then it was the Babylonians. And the Assyrians. And every generation thought, "Maybe we're the generation. Maybe we're the ones who will see the arrival of the great king and Messiah riding in ahead of his legions to defeat our enemies for all time."
But he didn't come. And he didn't come. And the anticipation was agony.
Then came the Romans. With their centurions, and their cohorts, and their legions. And Israel, that little nation on the edge of the Mediterranean, couldn't possibly withstand them. And oh, how they hated living under the heel of Rome. Soldiers marching down their streets, tax collectors taking their money, rumors of the sickening debaucheries that their tax money paid for in faraway Rome. Oh yes, they hated it. "Now, Lord, would be a good time for you to fulfill your promise!" and "How long, oh Lord?" were the prayers they prayed.
And then, in one quiet little village in that obscure corner of the world, while shepherds watched their flocks by night, something extraordinary happened. An angel appeared out of thin air and terrified those poor shepherds.
Oh, how excited those shepherds must have been! How wonderful that all those years of anticipation were finally going to pay off. They must have run at full speed to the stable to see that great king. True, he wasn't riding on a white horse, but he was the king promised; the angel said so! How low they must have bowed before that tiny child! What awe they must have felt in the quietness of the moment.
And then, when they left, they banged on all the neighbors' doors and shouted out their joy in the middle of the night -- "The king has come! The savior is here!"
And with that, the shepherds leave the Christmas narrative. But I want to stay with them a little longer. What did they do next? Did they go back to their flocks? Did they go home? How long did they lie awake that night, trying to go to sleep, yet unable to sleep because of their excitement and wonder? And when they did finally fall asleep, and awoke the next morning, what was the first thought that went through their minds?
If it was me, the first thought would have been, "That was a crazy dream I had last night."
I think they probably looked out the window, expecting to see the sun shining more brightly than ever, and all the clouds rolled away. I think they would have been disappointed to see that the sky looked just like it did yesterday, and the day before, and the day before. I think they would have listened to find out if the birds had taken up the song of "Gloria in excelsis Deo," and instead, all they heard was the stomp, stomp, stomp of Roman soldiers marching down the street...just as they had the day before, and the day before, and the day before.
And what would they have done then? Like us, they would realize that there are still bills to be paid, and jobs to be done. And back to the fields they would have gone. Just like they did the day before, and the day before, and the day before. And life in Bethlehem would have continued -- completely unchanged by the dramatic event.
Yes, I think the first Christmas may have felt like a big letdown.
The book of Titus, chapter 2, helps us understand that feeling of being let down.
Here in these verses we see the word "appeared," which -- although you might not have realized it -- is a Christmas word. Epiphany. Revealed. The grace of God was revealed to us. It's the message of Christmas. The message of the incarnation. Jesus Christ, the Word of God, took on flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace.
And herein lies the problem. The grace of God didn't appear riding on a white horse waving a sword against our enemies. The grace of God appeared teaching us to live lives of righteous self-control in this present age. We didn't want that. We wanted someone to stomp out wickedness in the world around us, not to teach us how to stomp out wickedness in our own lives.
We wanted a king who would bring an immediate end to sickness, to death, to dishonesty, to murder, to political upheaval. Instead we got a king who told us, "Take up your cross and follow me," and "If anyone wants to gain his life he must lose it," and "Whoever wants to be top dog has to be the servant of everyone," and "Whatever you do for the least of these, you've done for me."
This is not what we wanted. We didn't want a king who told us these things, any more than the Israelites wanted a king who would be killed by his enemies instead of killing his enemies. Christmas didn't bring us what we wanted. But it brought us what we needed. Christ may not have been the king we wanted, but He is the king we needed.
And so we face Christmas with heartbreak and loss. This year I face Christmas with the knowledge that an old friend is at the center of an ugly family situation so tragic I don't want to even think or talk about it. I face Christmas with the knowledge that one of my students just lost his father to cancer. I face Christmas with the knowledge that an entire Syrian city is being bombed into oblivion, and there is nothing I can do to prevent it.
And you face Christmas with your own personal heartaches. Loss of loved ones. Sickness. Family struggles and griefs. The grace of God appeared, but He didn't take any of those things away. Instead, he taught you how to live faithfully through those things -- in this present age.
And that's the key. Those simple words, "This present age." Those words signal that there is still a change to come. Like the shepherds, we go back to the drudgery of bills to be paid and responsibilities to be fulfilled, but something has changed. We go back to the horror of the right failing while the wrong is prevailing, but something has changed. Not in the world out there, but within us. The shepherds didn't go back to the fields without hope; they went back with the confident assurance that the baby in the manger was a portent, a promise, that something had changed, and something would change!
Look again at Titus 2:13. The wait is not over! The anticipation is not at an end! Christmas is not over -- it's just beginning. The first epiphany is not the only epiphany. There was once an appearing that was filled with humility and poverty, with grief and sorrow. But that wasn't the only appearing. There will come a glorious appearing, when the King who came once without a white horse will come again with a crown of glory and honor and authority! If the first appearing -- the humble one -- was heralded by angels, how much more glorious will that second appearing be!
And then, on that glorious day, the wrong will fail, and the right will prevail, and peace will be the unbroken song pealed out forever.
We live in this life of tragedy with a sense of anticipation. Not the agonized anticipation of childhood, but the more mature anticipation of savoring the life we've been given in this present age while we wait for that glorious appearing. We live it -- as Paul told Titus, as a people zealous for good works in this world of darkness and hopelessness. We live it understanding that we are the earthen vessels in which God has entrusted the treasure of his grace between the first and the second epiphanies.
And so Christmas does not end. It does not end on December 25th, or December 26th; Christmas will still be going strong in the middle of summer next year, if we do not forget that we live in a sort of parentheses between the two epiphanies. There's a surprisingly profound theology in Ebenezer Scrooge's statement, "I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!" Like Scrooge, we live with that inner striving; we live in commemoration of the infant who was the Incarnation of God, we live with zeal as the earthen vessels of God's grace in this present age, and we live in the glorious hope of the unveiling of the king in that future epiphany, when we will forever be with him.
Paul tells the Thessalonians to encourage and comfort each other with these words. "Encourage each other with these words. Christ will come again. Are the skies cloudy and gray? Christ will come again. Does the load seem too heavy to bear? Christ will come again. Are you grieving? Christ will come again. Are you sick? Christ will come again. Are you in distress? Christ will come again. Are you discouraged by evil's influence in the world? Christ will come again. When it seems like darkness and death are winning, when it seems like the forces of evil are too strong, when the clouds are covering the sky: look to the east, for Christ will come again." *
So during this Christmas season, let us stop for a moment, and "Hear the angels, as they're singing, on the morning of his birth -- but how much greater will our song be when he comes again to earth!" **
This is the spirit of Christmas yet to come, and it is the spirit in which we live with zeal in this present age. May the spirit of Christmas live within us now, throughout this present age, and forever!
* Quoted from a sermon by Jonathan Twitchell
** Quoted from "In the First Light" by Bob Kauflin