[NOTE: Unfortunately, the audio recording of this message is unavailable. We are providing the following transcript instead, and we hope that you are blessed.]
Well, it’s almost time. Christmas is in just a couple of days. Any last-minute baking, last-minute shopping, last-minute anything needs to happen… soon.
And then, in just a couple of weeks, we’ll all receive the bill in the mail. All those holiday baking ingredients, and wrapping paper, and decorations, and gifts… it all adds up. And it’s ready to welcome us into the new year and the new decade.
Have you ever wondered how much Christmas costs? At least, in terms of the average American family celebrating the holiday. It’s a little tricky to calculate, apparently, because average spending is significantly higher in places like New York City than rural Texas. Still, there’s a whole lot of consumer data out there (because, you know, the retailers are really, really good at researching spending habits!).
The average American couple in 2019 will spend between $95 and $300 on each other’s gifts (and there’s data that the amount increases the longer a couple has been together). However, those averages are sketchy, because there’s also research showing that many couples give each other homemade gifts at Christmas.
There’s also research showing that individuals tend to spend an average of $150 on themselves during the holidays. So, yeah, we need to factor that into the equation.
So what’s the total bill for Christmas? Combining data from NerdWallet Harris’ polling, the National Retail Federation, and the American Christmas Tree Association gives us a likely average. Their research suggests that an average family of four in America will spend a little over $877 this month. That’s within just a few dollars of the research data from other organizations.
Lendedu digs a little deeper and suggests that about 20% of consumers will take on significant debt this season, with next month’s credit card bills adding about $720 on average.
Interestingly, more than half of Americans will do all of their shopping online this year. (No surprise; Amazon is the big winner here.) And they even break down how all those dollars will be spent this month.
Yeah, there’s no doubt about it. Christmas is a costly holiday.
The Ancient Cost
Actually, it’s always been that way.
I mean, think about it for a moment. The obvious high-ticket item has to go to the magi from the east, what with all the gold, incense, and scented embalming fluid. (Yeah, if you missed last week, go listen on the Hope App or online, or do an Internet search for what myrrh is really all about.)
But we also learned last week that Christmas was costly to Joseph, right? With just one word from God in the middle of the night, Joseph’s whole life was turned around.
- He became a married man.
- He became foster father to the living incarnation of the Almighty.
- He had to forgo sexual intimacy as a newlywed.
- He had to move to Egypt, and then back to Israel, but not to his hometown.
- He had to let go of his family, his friends, his business, his dreams… all because of Christmas.
Christmas cost Joseph dearly. Christmas basically cost Joseph his life, because his story became all about the little boy cradled in his arms that night so long ago.
But Joseph’s sacrifice — as costly as it was — barely compares to the cost of Christmas to countless families throughout Israel.
Keep in mind that at some point in the first year or two after Christmas, when the magi brought their expensive gifts of worship, king Herod exacted a terrible price upon all the children in the western suburbs of Jerusalem. Because God warned the magi not to tell Herod where Christ was (and thus kept Herod from killing the newborn King of kings)…
Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance. (Matthew 2:16 NLT)
Herod’s brutal action fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A cry was heard in Ramah— weeping and great mourning. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted, for they are dead.” (Matthew 2:17–18 NLT)
Joseph and Mary had whisked Jesus off to Egypt for a year or two until Herod died. They were safe. But the beautiful children of Bethlehem? Those precious little boys? Their homes were broken into. The sons were stolen from their cribs. And the lives so loved and cherished by their parents were brutally murdered.
We often think of that beautiful Christmas night when the skies of Bethlehem resounded with the shouts of God’s heavenly war host. But we forget that night when the darkness of the city echoed with anguish and weeping.
All because of Christmas. It sort of puts our holiday spending into perspective, doesn’t it? It almost feels absurd to talk about “the cost of Christmas” in light of the sacrifices — and sorrows — others have experienced because of God’s incarnation.
The Worship of Unity and the Whispers of Anguish
You know, there’s a really haunting moment in the biblical account of Christmas that kind of creeps up on me every year. I find myself reading the story…
- Reading about the old priest, Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth, discovering they’re pregnant with John (who will become the baptist), and how John lept with joy inside his mother’s womb when the pregnant Mary paid a visit.
- Reading about Joseph and his dream after dream after dream, totally turning his life upside down, while he faithfully and graciously and peacefully follows whatever play God lays before him.
- Reading about Mary’s conversation with an angel, and the absurdity of what he was telling her, and her incredible faith in God’s promises, and in her magificent song of worship in response.
- Reading about shepherds and angels and magi from the east, all celebrating the arrival of the greatest and final King over all mankind.
But then I keep reading — reading about the old prophetess, Anna, who waited at the Temple worshiping God day and night until the Lord’s promise was fulfilled and she saw the newborn Christ for herself.
Reading the song of Simeon, filled with the words and the power of God’s Spirit, filling the Temple with God’s praises… all before whispering those deeply haunting… costly… words to Mary.
You know about Simeon, right? He enters the Christmas story about a week after that night in Bethlehem, when Joseph and Mary took their newborn up into Jerusalem so that he could be dedicated at the Temple, and so that the requirements of Moses’ Law would be satisfied, and so the promises of God would be fulfilled.
At that time there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon. He was righteous and devout and was eagerly waiting for the Messiah to come and rescue Israel. The Holy Spirit was upon him and had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. (Luke 2:25–26 NLT)
That day the Spirit led him to the Temple. So when Mary and Joseph came to present the baby Jesus to the Lord as the law required, Simeon was there. He took the child in his arms and praised God, saying, (Luke 2:27–28 NLT)
“Sovereign Lord, now let your servant die in peace, as you have promised. I have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all people. He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and he is the glory of your people Israel!” (Luke 2:29–32 NLT)
Here is this wonderful old man. Righteous. Devout. Passionate about God. Intimate with God’s Spirit.
He’s there in Jerusalem waiting for the Messiah, knowing that he won’t breathe his last until God’s ancient promise is fulfilled.
Then, one morning, while he’s noshing on his breakfast, God’s Spirit rushes through his soul and whispers to his heart: “It’s time. Today is the day.” So Simeon makes his way through the city, up the steps, and into the courtyard of the Temple. The place is bustling with activity — choirs of priests singing the ancient psalms, families herding their livestock for the sacrifice, bleeting and lowing and fluttering of wings everywhere. Voices — so many voices.
But amidst the chaos was a young couple carrying their newborn, waiting for their turn to offer their worship and gratitude to God, and to present their son to the priest.
Simeon sees them. Immediately God’s Spirit within him recognizes God’s incarnation in front of him. He whisks the little child into his embrace, and the worship of a lifetime of waiting begins to burst forth from him. “I can die in peace, Lord. I have seen your promise fulfilled. The light of the nations, the glory of Israel.”
But Simeon surprised everyone with his praises. The Messiah would not simply deliver Israel; he is the salvation for “all people.” He reveals God to the world… just as the Lord had promised their patriarch, Abraham, so long ago — that one of his descendants, a son of Israel, would be the salvation of all.
Simeon’s outburst of worship was a proclamation of unity under the sovereignty and salvation of this newborn boy from Bethlehem.
It’s all so beautiful and awesome and wondrous. That is… until he hands the child back to its mother, and he leans in close to Mary, and he whispers those haunting words that forever remind us of the cost of Christmas.
Jesus’ parents were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them, and he said to Mary, the baby’s mother… (Luke 2:33–34 NLT)
“This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, and many others to rise. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.” (Luke 2:34-35 NLT)
Jesus is God’s gift for all. But many will oppose him. Many will stumble and fall. The mighty and powerful, the pious and impressive, would find Jesus to be an impassible obstacle to their own agendas for acclaim and influence. Rather than stop before him and bow their knee in reverence submission, they will trip and crash and be humbled by Christ. By his grace. By his love. By his righteousness. By the news of his Kingdom. By the truth that all their effort — all their religious work — would not secure their place in God’s family. By the reality that they would have to depend entirely upon what God does on their behalf.
But the beckoning call of God to follow Christ, to lay down our lives, to die to ourselves, so that we might embrace a new life in Christ… a new perspective, a new purpose, a new passion… that carries us day to day throughout this life and into eternity.
Even as many would fall, others would rise. Not the powerful. Not the impressive. But the broken. The humble. The discarded, unwanted pariahs of the world. The meager fishermen. The tax collectors. The prostitutes. The Roman centurions. The thief. The tyrant. Those who realize they have nothing to lose, so it’s easy for them to sojourn in Jesus’ footsteps, to learn from him, to humbly admit their need for him — for his forgiveness, for his compassion, for his healing, for his regenerating power.
Though God gave Christ to unite the world under his sovereignty, the reality of Christ divides the world bitterly… even today.
One of the most distressing aspects of Christianity has always been the unintentional “us” and “them” mentality that has been fostered among well-meaning, Christ-loving churches throughout the ages. We can’t help it. Because our task is to be “fishers of men,” because we are ambassadors of God’s kingdom to those outside of his kingdom, we can’t help but identify those who are brothers and sisters in Christ, those who share the fellowship of God’s Spirit, those who are part of this mighty new family of God. And we can’t help but identify those who are lost in the darkness, unaware of their need for forgiveness and redemption. Those outsiders have always been the heart and passion of God’s plan for salvation of mankind, and Jesus had such overwhelming, heroic, genuine love and compassion for them.
We are following in his footsteps as we share God’s grace with them.
Notice that even in describing our purpose I can’t avoid labels like “we” and “them.” So Simeon’s beautiful words of worship and unity — salvation for all people, a light for all nations — are chased by whispers of those who fall and those who rise up. The gift of God that many will oppose. A broken, divided world.
I suppose the irony is that this time of year — the celebration of Christmas, of the arrival of Christ — may be the closest we come to being united by his nativity. I don’t know if you saw the video of the flash mob of the United States Air Force Band at the National Air & Space Museum, but it brought me to tears. Just the thought of our nation’s military openly and majestically performing Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring and Joy to the World brought me to tears. Not only was it beautiful music, but it was worship.
Jesu’ — the joy of man’s desiring
Thou whose love shines down like a guiding light
Drawn to Thee with souls aspiring
Through our Father we reach a celestial height
Open doors of truth unknown
As Thy love comes down from the heavenly throne
He rules the earth with truth and grace
and makes the nations prove
the glories of his righteousness
and wonders of his love
Still, though many sing the words, and many celebrate the holiday, many still oppose him. He causes many to stumble and fall, while others are arisen anew in him.
The cost of Christmas.
And then there’s that little personal phrase to Mary: “And a sword will pierce your very soul.”
We already know that Mary (and Joseph, too, for that matter) were humble. They were gentle, righteous people. They were kind. They were obedient to God.
And they were poor. They brought two doves to the Temple for the sacrifice of ritual cleansing, even though the typical sacrifice was a newborn lamb. The parents of the Lamb of God could not afford a lamb themselves for their worship that day. (Hmm. There’s probably a beautiful parable there…)
Her cousin, Elizabeth, had greeted Mary by telling her that she was the most blessed among women… because God himself would grow within her.
Now Simeon tells her that this child would bring great sorrow. “A sword will pierce your very soul.”
You and I don’t live in a world with swords, or else we would know the shocking horror of what Simeon was saying. You see, the most common sword in the 1st century, and the most common Greek word for “sword,” was μάχαιρα [má·chai·ra] — a generic word often used for the short, stubby blades of the Romans or the sleeker, curved daggers of the Arabians. But that’s not what Simeon said. He told Mary that a ῥομφαία [rhom·phaí·a] would pierce her soul — the huge, barbaric blade wielded by the Thracians, known for its length, and breadth, and weight, and brutality. It was almost a polearm that the Thracians would swing, using its heavy balance to cleave through their enemies.
(In the Bible, it’s also the blade that proceeds from Christ’s mouth in the word pictures of the Apocalypse in Revelation — the blade of truth which cuts to the core of every person and which cannot be withstood.)
Simeon painted a word picture for Mary in which the cost of Christmas — would be a sorrow that carves deep into her soul, her ψυχή [psū·cháy], her heart and emotions, her thoughts and perspective — that intangible reality of who she is. Her very identity.
This beautiful baby boy, gazing up lovingly at his mother, would grow to create such division in the world. Would grow to be met with such bitterness. Though he would only show love, his grace would provoke hatred so dark and fierce that Mary’s neighbors and countrymen would cry out for her son’s crucifixion.
Mary would watch Jesus betrayed, tortured, ridiculed, humiliated, and murdered. A mother’s heart torn to shreds with inexpressible sorrow. This is the cost of Christmas. It’s a cost paid in blood and experienced in brokenness and grief.
The Good News
But I have really, really good news… even in the face of the dark tidings of American spending, and the suffering mothers of Bethlehem, and poor Mary listening to the ominous whispers of a godly old man.
Yes, the cost of Christmas is infinitely high, and the cost is paid in such anguish and sorrow.
But the cost is paid. The cost of Christmas is the life of that newborn in the manger, and the good news is that the price has been paid… by him. It’s paid. It’s done. The matter is all settled.
Paul wrote about this to the churches in the region of Galatia:
The meaning of Jesus Christ’s death was made clear to you… Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ. (Galatians 3:1–2 NLT)
And after starting your new lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort? (Galatians 3:3 NLT)
Those who depend on the law to make them right with God are under his curse… It is clear that no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” (Galatians 3:10–11 NLT)
Faith not in ourselves or our effort to “measure up” to God, but faith in Christ. Faith in his birth, in his life, in his love, in his grace, in his forgiveness. Faith in his death and in his resurrection. Faith in his promise to us — the promise of redemption and new life forever with him.
Not because of what we do. But because of what he has done.
Christ has rescued us from the curse pronounced by the law. When he was hung on the cross, he took upon himself the curse for our wrongdoing. (Galatians 3:13 NLT)
Now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian. For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:25–26 NLT)
When the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children. (Galatians 4:4–5 NLT)
And because we are his children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, prompting us to call out, “Abba, Father.” Now you are no longer a slave but God’s own child. And since you are his child, God has made you his heir. (Galatians 4:6–7 NLT)
The cost of Christmas was paid… by Christ. And the result is our freedom, and our purity, and our new life as God’s children now and forever.
We now belong to God! We are his! We are his children, his family, his people! We are his ambassadors, his representatives! We are the dwelling place of the Lord in the midst of this dark and weary world! And we are the messengers of his love and grace and freedom.
God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God… (1 Corinthians 6:20 NLT)
So many people have suffered for the cause of Christ over the past two millennia. So many are suffering today, because we bear his name, and because many still oppose him, and he continues to cause many to stumble and fall while allowing others to arise to new life.
As Paul wrote to his apprentice, Titus,
He gave his life to free us from every kind of sin, to cleanse us, and to make us his very own people, totally committed to doing good deeds. (Titus 2:14 NLT)
And he goes on to say that we must teach this life-changing truth, and encourage others to experience this new life — free from sin, cleansed by Christ, adopted as God’s own people, and committed to doing good in this world.
The cost of Christmas is high, and the price has been paid. And we have been set free to be the light of the world. To be the peace-makers, proclaiming unity and love to a broken and divided world. We bring good news of great joy for all people.
Truly He taught us to love one another.
His law is love, and His Gospel is peace.
Chains will He break, for the slave is our brother.
In His name, all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy, in grateful chorus raise…
Let all within us praise His holy name