Christmas is done. We’ve made it. But what now? The days leading up to Christmas, while often busy, are also joy-filled in a way many other times of the year aren’t. But once we get to the other side of Christmas, how do we keep from running smack into the emotional letdown we so often feel? This week and next as we get started on a brand new year, a brand new decade, we’re going to talk about how to do just that in a short run series called, After Christmas. Thanks for reading.
So here we are on the other side of the big day. Did anybody wake up Thursday morning and think, “Now what?” I mean, Wednesday we were all like, “Ho, ho, ho!” But Thursday? It was perhaps more like, “Oh, oh, oh…” There’s just something about the day after a big holiday like Christmas that feels like a bit of a letdown, isn’t there?
Now, maybe not. Maybe you’re one of those people who have some after-holiday traditions that are pretty firmly entrenched to keep the doldrums at bay. Any post-Christmas shoppers in the room? You’ve got money to burn or stuff to return and so Thursday morning you were off on a mission. There’s nothing quite like a mission to keep you from feeling blue.
It could be that you have a fairly structured de-decorating process that begins the morning after Christmas. Our stuff is mostly all down. We usually take it down the day after or so, but mostly just so we can have our living room back. The New Year is coming, and you don’t want a whiff of Christmas hanging around when it arrives. Plus, if you happen to have any days off of work during Christmas week, you want to get the most out of them so you’re not stuck doing it on the weekend or even on New Year’s Day.
Or it could be that you’re the kind of person who makes New Year’s resolutions. Once you get past Christmas, it’s time to start thinking about what those are going to be. Although if you’re starting it now, it could be that one of your resolutions should be something about not procrastinating…but we’ll get to that later. If you fit into this last camp, you fall pretty comfortably in line with how our culture thinks. Once we get through Christmas, everything shifts gears to New Year’s resolutions and the tools we will need to keep them (thus the great proliferation of ads for money management groups, diet plans, gym memberships, exercise equipment, and the like). This typically carries us through mid-January at which point in time we begin preparing for our next major national holiday. Any guesses as to what that is? Super Bowl Sunday.
If you think about it, though, this cultural trend helps explain a bit of the post-holiday letdown we often feel. Through the season of Advent, we are focused on other people. We’re focused on the gifts we are going to buy. We’re focused on the parties we’re going to attend. We’re focused on keeping up with all of the events with other people we have planned. For followers of Jesus, we are focused on…Jesus. But afterwards, we shift gears and tend to focus right in on ourselves. Come on, you know as well as I do that there are few things more dispiriting than looking at yourself after you’ve spent a long time looking at other people. Why do you think higher social media usage is linked to depression? It’s because we have to get off of it at some point and then we’re stuck looking at ourselves instead of the apparently awesome lives of the people whose posts wind up on our news feed.
I guess the question that really pulses in my heart and mind in light of all of this is how do we avoid all of this mess? How do we keep this time of year from being an emotional rollercoaster where we’re up one day and down the next? If you are a follower of Jesus, how do we take the excitement over Jesus’ birth and keep it from being little more than a flash in the pan that doesn’t carry us nearly as close to Easter as we’d like? Or to perhaps put that even more simply: What do we do after Christmas?
I think there are a couple of really good answers to that question and, if you would, I’d like to take the next couple of weeks to talk about that together. This week and next I want to see if we can’t find some wisdom for keeping the excitement of the season lasting just a bit longer than usual. We’re going to do this with the help of two different passages of Scripture; one very familiar, and one that’s perhaps less familiar. We’ll start this morning with the more familiar passage.
In Matthew 2, the apostle records for us the story of one of the first after Christmas stories we have. The heart of this particular story is the much-beloved journey of the wise men. As you might expect, though, there’s more going on here than simply the story of three guys crossing the desert to see Jesus and make their belated appearance in the nativity scene. (And just for the record, they were not there with the shepherds like every nativity scene ever sold in stores suggests.) If you’ll find your way to Matthew 2 with me in your Bibles, I want to take a look at this with you to see if we can’t glean some wisdom in their after Christmas story that can help us in ours.
Matthew starts telling their story like this: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod, wise men from the east arrived in Jerusalem…” Let’s pause there for a minute. I just had to point this out. In every other religion, the stories surrounding the birth or the arrival of a god are spectacular. Athena sprung fully formed from the forehead of her father Zeus. Aphrodite was born from the foam of the sea and came sailing in on a giant seashell. Apollo was born and promptly defeated a monster serpent that was trying to eat his mom and twin sister. But Jesus? For all the attention we give it, His birth is understated almost to the point of being ignored in the Gospels. Luke gives it once sentence. Matthew here tells Joseph’s part of the story and then adds four words about Jesus having been born (note the past tense) almost as an afterthought or merely a transition point to get to the next story. Oh yeah, Jesus was born, now let’s talk about something else. Here’s my point: Given all the other divine birth narratives circulating at the time Matthew and Luke were writing, the only reason they would have presented the birth of Jesus like they do is because that’s the way it actually happened. That’s just a little stone for your sling.
Anyway, the wise men arrived in Jerusalem, “saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star at its rising [there is some good research to suggest this may have been a comet] and have come to worship him.’” So, this group of wise men, or magi from the Greek word magos, arrive in Jerusalem looking for the newly born king of the Jews. They probably came from somewhere in the neighborhood of Babylon and there were undoubtedly more than three of them. We don’t actually know how many, but a group of men wealthy and powerful enough to bring the kinds of gifts they did across hundreds of miles of desert would have traveled with a pretty large entourage.
There’s a good chance they didn’t know anything about the political situation in Judea. In fact, the wording of their question suggests they definitely did not know it. Herod, known as “Herod the Great” to historians, was a bad dude. He was paranoid and devious. The Jews under his rule knew he was prone to lashing out violently at anyone he thought posed a threat to his power including his own family members; including his own wife. His learning about a newly born king of the Jews would have set him off like a bomb. It’s little wonder that Matthew writes what he does next: “When King Herod heard this, he was deeply disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” You bet they were. For all they knew, Herod would respond by killing as many Jews as he could get away with just to make sure he got this one taken care of.
What he actually did probably surprised them. Herod calls together all the religious scholars he can find and tells them to look up where the Messiah was supposed to be born. They find Micah 5:2 and Herod sends the wise men on to Bethlehem to find their king. Before they go, though, he gives them a secret mission. You see, he wants to be able to worship this king too without all of the hype that would be accompanying His birth once the news about it got out. So, they are to report back to him the exact location they find him.
With their destination determined, the wise men set off again and, low and behold, they find the star again. Verse 9 now: “After hearing the king, they went on their way. And there it was—the star they had seen at its rising. It led them until it came and stopped above the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overwhelmed with joy. Entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and falling to their knees, they worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
That’s the story, but then, you already knew that. The question we’re asking this morning is what any of this has to do with our own after Christmas times in positive ways. Well, look at what’s going on here with me. For starters, can we recognize together that God is at work in places we’ll never see or even think about. Again, the wise men probably came from Babylon. There was still a vibrant community of Jews who remained there after the exile. The Persian culture at the time was generally very much interested in ancient prophecies and writings. Now, how and why they interpreted the particular astronomical event we know simply as the “Christmas star” to mean a king of the Jews had been born in Judea we do not know. But the journey they took to find and worship this king would have likely been somewhere north of 2,000 miles. At an upper limit of 25-30 miles per day—probably going by camelback—it would have taken them somewhere in the range of three months to get from point A to point B. That’s a lot of distance and a lot of time. And yet, God was working there to draw people to Himself.
Here’s what this means for our after Christmas struggles: God may be at work somewhere right now that you can’t even begin to imagine and in a way that will eventually have a direct impact on your life. Or…stay with me here…He may be working in your life right now, leading you somewhere that will eventually result in your having a transformative impact on someone else’s life. If they—or you—get all excited about Jesus and then quit after Christmas, there are blessings in abundance that might go unreceived because of it. We’ve got to keep following.
But, following, after a while, can get tough. This is especially true when we draw near to and pass certain milestones along the way. The wise men followed the star from Babylon to Judea, but then they suddenly seem to lose it. The star was ultimately pointing them to Bethlehem, but they veered off course and went to Jerusalem to see Herod. From a strictly human standpoint, this makes sense, right? They were seeking a newly born king. Where else would you think to look for this other than in the palace in the capital. They perhaps assumed the newborn king of the Jews would be the son of Herod. Imagine their surprise when Herod didn’t have any idea what they were talking about.
In our own journeys after Jesus, something like making it through Christmas can get us to let our guard down a bit. It can leave us running on what we know rather than sticking with what God is telling us. We’ve made it this far and things are going well, it’ll be okay if we stretch our own wings and fly just a bit higher on our own. Plus, we’ve spent so much time worrying about everyone else, we deserve to focus on improving ourselves a bit. And yet, what happened when the wise men quit following the star and started going with what they thought they knew? They made a mess whose full, terrible chaos didn’t spill over until after they were gone. It was not a pretty sight. In the same way, if we let our focus shift a bit after Christmas, the odds are disturbingly high that we’ll make a mess of things too. We’ve got to keep following.
But, just because we drift a bit after Christmas, and even if our drifting makes a mess, that doesn’t mean our story is finished. The story of the wise men certainly wasn’t. Remember what Matthew said? When they started back for the place to which God had been calling them from the beginning, “there it was—the star they had seen at its rising.” When they were ready to go both the direction and the way God wanted them to go, they had all the help they needed. So will we. And listen: There is joy in doing things God’s way. Remember v. 10: “When they saw the star, they were overwhelmed with joy.” And when their joy was made full, they worshiped.
Just because we are after Christmas, doesn’t mean we can’t still experience the full joy of the season. We just have to keep pursuing it. Just because we are after Christmas doesn’t mean we have to wait until Easter to get to Jesus again. We just have to keep pursuing Him. We have to keep pursuing and one more thing. I didn’t read the last verse of the story a minute ago. Once the wise men had spent all the time in Bethlehem they were going to spend, it was time to for them to go home. Had they fulfilled Herod’s little side mission for them, it would have spelled doom for the Messiah and His family. For all we know, though, they still didn’t realize this. So, God had to spell it out for them. Verse 12: “And being warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their own country by another route.”
Even though they were after Christmas, and even though their particular journey had reached its goal, they kept listening to God’s voice when they heard it. If we are going to stay on track after Christmas, we’ve got to keep listening as well. Just because one milestone is down, doesn’t mean God’s plans are done. Until the day of His return, He is going to be constantly working through His people to advance His kingdom in this earth. And although that work may seem to concentrate in the days leading up to Christmas, it doesn’t stop just because we get past it. If we’ll keep listening and following His lead, we will get to experience that work to its gloriously fullest; we will get to experience Him.
No matter what happened, the wise men kept pressing onward toward their goal. They didn’t let any obstacles—including the ones they put in their own path—halt their advance. If we want to get to Jesus like they did, we’ve got to be willing to do the same thing. We’ve got to be willing to keep following and listening, to keep pursuing Him, no matter what. We’ll get to Jesus when we keep seeking no matter what. We’ll get to Jesus when we keep seeking no matter what. It does not matter if we are before Christmas, after Christmas, or all the way on the other side of the calendar. We’ll get to Jesus when we keep seeking no matter what.
Of course, this just begs the question of how we manage to do that. If you’ll come back next week, I’ll tell you.