Remembering Jesus – Even as a new husband I know the importance of remembering my wedding anniversary. It wouldn’t quite cut it if on that day I did nothing special for my wife and only mentally acknowledged our anniversary. She wouldn’t say, “How thoughtful! I’m glad you didn’t forget.” You don’t remember your anniversary by stating the facts. She would rightly expect that the concept of remembering our anniversary involves a layer of activity, such as me writing a note or taking her on a date. We remember our covenantal promise as I pursue, cherish, and love her afresh like I vowed on our wedding day.
The Quest for Rest – Augustine’s Confessions is one of the great classics of Christian historical theological literature. It is admired for its beauty of composition, its sophisticated literary construction, and its vivid and honest recollections of the life of its author. Some scholars would even say it began a new genre of literature. However, Augustine’s purpose in Confessions was not to masterfully write a new type of literature. Instead, he wanted to expose himself spiritually to his readers so they would learn from his example and find rest in worshipping God through the grace of faith in Christ.
Rise Early – William Law (1686-1761) was an English Puritan theologian best known for writing works in the category of practical divinity, a category to which we refer today as “Christian living” or “devotional literature.” His most famous work was a classic titled A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. In it, he argues strenuously that the best way for a Christian to begin his day is to rise very early and spent the first hours in prayer and Scripture meditation.
As you reflect on the significance of Christ’s coming this Christmas, allow me to make one suggestion that may actually add to your holiday cheer: Don’t begin in Bethlehem. That may sound scrooge-like, but hear me out.
Bethlehem looms large in our minds during Christmas, and rightfully so. The prophet Micah had predicted centuries earlier that a ruler would hail from this obscure town (Mic 5:2). As King David’s birthplace, Bethlehem would also be the scene of the Messiah’s birth. In that sense, it’s difficult not to think of Bethlehem this time of year. That’s fine, but don’t forget that the Christmas story was set in motion long before the nativity scene.
Bethlehem wasn’t the beginning.
Jesus spoke of the glory he had with the Father “before the world existed” (Jn 17:5). As the Second Person of the Trinity, He was in communion with the Father and the Spirit from all eternity. We’re even told that the world was created through Him (Jn 1:1; Col 1:16). To be sure, He took on flesh at a point in time, but His role in God’s plan of redemption did not begin in a manger in Bethlehem nearly 2000 years ago. Christ was not thrust on the scene unexpectedly. Out of His own free grace He set His sights on rebellious sinners like you and me before the foundation of the world. The eternal Word became flesh for us and for our salvation (Jn 1:14). This is the infinite grace of the Incarnation. And the nativity scene was our first glimpse.
As you reflect on Christ’s birth this Christmas and as you talk about it with others, be sure to include the little town of Bethlehem. But don’t start there: go back, much further back, and marvel at the One who planned the nativity scene from the beginning in order to rescue us from the judgment we deserve. Marvel at the grace of the Son of God who, as Paul says, “loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).
Give thanks that in those dark streets of Bethlehem shone the Everlasting Light.
Private devotions aren’t magic. We know that (for the most part).
But still, we can be tempted to think that if we just figure out the secret formula — the right mixture of Bible meditation and prayer — we will experience euphoric moments of rapturous communion with the Lord. And if that doesn’t happen, our formula must be wrong.
The danger of this misconception is that it can produce chronic disappointment and discouragement. Cynicism sets in and we give up or whip through them to alleviate guilt because devotions don’t seem to work for us.
Our longing for intimate communion with God is God-given. It’s a good thing to desire, ask for, and pursue. The Spirit does give us wonderful occasional tastes. And this longing will be satisfied to overflowing some day (Psalm 16:11).