I love Christmas.
I love everything about it. I love the festivity—from decorations and music playing in department stores to rows of suburban houses trying to outdo one-another for the largest electricity bill this December. I love the feasting—prawns by the bucket-full and as much of mum’s potato salad as I can eat! And I love the family time—when you get to relax a bit (usually the day after Christmas), hang out with loved ones and play with your new toys. I love it! I love carols like O Holy Night and O Come, O Come Emmanuel. I love Christmas Eve services with puppets and Colin Buchanan songs. I love Christmas readings—classic passages of a saviour being born and glory to God in the highest. It’s all great stuff.
Part of what makes me love Christmas is that I find it all very comfortable. But this year, I have decided that we would start our Christmas series in December with an uncomfortable passage
And part of what makes me love Christmas is that I find it all very comfortable. It’s what makes any tradition so appealing—the ease of following well-worn grooves. Christmas for me is like holidays with my family when I was young. We went to the same place, rented the same apartment, and did the same activities every day. It was so relaxing, so cosy, so comfortable. And that’s what Christmas is like for me. Comfortable.
But this year, I have decided that we would start our Christmas series in December with an uncomfortable passage—Matthew 3—the chapter straight after the birth narrative. It’s the passage about John the Baptist, the wild-man from the Jordan river who preached the sort of “turn-or-burn” sermons that would make even the most conservative evangelical blush today. It’s an odd passage for a Christmas sermon because it doesn’t occur around Christmas: Jesus is all grown up by then. But John the Baptist’s message was still about the coming of the Christ into the world—it was a “Christmas sermon.” And I picked this passage because in it John paints the coming of the Christ as anything but comfortable. For John, Christ’s coming is alarming. Disruptive. Jarring. And I felt that we could use some of that during our very comfortable Christmas.
An Uncomfortable Sermon
John was preparing people for the coming of the Christ into the world. And what was his message? “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2). For John, the coming of the Christ meant judgment on the world. That is why John modelled himself on the Elijah figure of Malachi 4—the messenger who would precede that final day of judgment and fire. When God declares Jesus to be “my Son” at his baptism later in the chapter (Matt 3:17), he is declaring him to be the judge of the earth. For the Psalm 2 “Son of God” will judge all those who oppose Him, breaking them with a rod of iron and dashing them to pieces like pottery (Psalm 2:9).
Christ comes as the judge. Therefore, the only sane response to the Christmas message is to “flee from the coming wrath” (Matt 3:7). It is a moment of crisis that demands action. God is coming—turn back to him. Repent! And that is what we see happening in the Jordan River all those years ago. In response to this Christmas message, people came in droves from all over Israel—to confess their sins and to be baptised with water for repentance.
The Christmas message of the Christ’s arrival turned their lives upside down. It called them to radically re-examine how they were living their lives and realise that they needed forgiveness for their sins. Christmas is anything but comfortable. The baptism that Christ brings is powerfully disruptive—He baptises with the Holy Spirit and fire, transforming those who turn to him and destroying those who don’t (Matt 3:11-12). For those still living life their own way, apart from God—Christmas is a call to repent, and to believe for the forgiveness of your sins. And, to those of us who have repented, it is a reminder of that life-long call to repent—to conform our whole lives to Christ. Like the Magi from the East, Christmas it is about bowing before your King. It is about waking from your slumber. Coming out of the darkness and into the light. It is profoundly uncomfortable.
Christmas it is about bowing before your King. It is about waking from your slumber. Coming out of the darkness and into the light. It is profoundly uncomfortable.
The Comfortable Cut Down
But sadly, there was a group of people in John’s day who were still very comfortable. They were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These were the ruling elite. The respectable businessmen and prominent politicians of the Jewish upper classes. They were “the establishment,” But for John, they were a brood of vipers (Matt 3:7). Their mistake was to think they were fine. That they didn’t need to repent. They were self-righteous and self-assured. And John’s message for them was terrifying:
The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 3:10).
The Pharisees and Sadducees presumed on their Jewish heritage. They thought that, because Abraham was their father, they would be accepted by God. They thought that they were standing on firm ground. They were comfortable. And they were wrong. This passage reminds us that the Christmas message is a terrifying prospect for the comfortable; for those who stand on top of the world and believe that they are fine; for those who refuse to repent and continue to live life their own way; for those who sit in their comfortable home, around their comfy Christmas tree, giving presents to one another but giving no thought to sin and judgment and turning back to God. The axe is at the root.
Comfort, Comfort My People
And yet Christmas is ultimately a message of comfort. Comfort for those who do turn back to God. Matthew quotes from Isaiah 40 to describe John’s ministry as the “voice of one crying out in the desert”. And Isaiah 40 begins with these words:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. (Is 40:1-2).
Christmas is a message of comfort. We just need to remember where that comfort is found.
Christmas is a message of comfort. We just need to remember where that comfort is found. On that first Christmas eve, it was the powerful who seemed to have reason to feel comfortable. There was Emperor Augustus as he counted the people in his vast and now stable empire. There was King Herod, sitting safely on his throne, about to order the slaughter of hundreds of children. And yet, as Mary sang before Christ’s birth:
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:52-53).
True comfort—the comfort of that first Christmas Eve—isn’t found in vast empires or warm homes, but in a squalid manger where a baby lay. That’s where we find forgiveness of sins and the Spirit who transforms. Christmas is not for the comfortable—but it is comfort for those who have turned back to God.