Why Christmas Never Lives Up to the Buildup
Christmas anticipation is thick in the air. Christmas music dominates the airwaves. The smell of pumpkin spice permeates everything. Beautiful lights brighten the night. And in less than one week from today, Christmas will be done. All the gifts will be unwrapped and worn or played with (or returned to the store). Trees and lights will come down and get tossed out or boxed up and put back in the attic. And it happens every year — a sense of letdown. Call me a scrooge, but I find this sensation rather predictable. Perhaps it’s because we will have overspent and under-slept and overeaten.
Whatever the cause, Christmas never seems to live up to the buildup. Why is that? To answer this question, a couple of years back, pastor Matt Chandler preached an Advent sermon on Zephaniah 3:14–20 titled “God’s Protection and Delight.” The sermon includes an insightful and helpful meditation on this point to ready us, and steady us, for this season. Here now is a clip from pastor Matt Chandler, a survivor of brain cancer, preaching from Zephaniah 3:
In Zephaniah 3:15, the text answers the question “Why do we sing and shout and clap and rejoice with all our hearts?” It’s because, according to verse 15, our punishment has been removed.
Now that’s awesome. Our punishment has been removed. We are lawbreakers. We have rebelled against God. And in Christ, all of our punishment has been removed. That’s true right now. Your judgment day, Christian, has already occurred. Now you will stand in front of God, and you will give an account.
When they open up that file and pull your file out and slap it down, it will be dripping with the blood of Christ. When they open up the first page, it will say, “holy, spotless, blameless” — not because of you, but because of Christ. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ” (Romans 8:1). (Yeah, I’m preaching. You can clap!)
This is what God has done. This is why we look back upon the first coming of Christ and we sing and we shout and we rejoice with all our hearts in the God of our salvation — because there is no punishment for us. We will never again fear harm.
The Space Between
Now again, we’re in the space between. We’re in the already but not yet. It’s a scary thing to live in a Genesis 3 world.
I had to go get an MRI this past week. It was nerve-racking. Why, though? I mean, if I die, don’t I gain? Yeah, but I was still nervous. I had no control over it. I was still nervous. I met with a woman and her teenagers last night whose husband died Tuesday morning. There was some fear there. We’re in this space between. We’re in the already but not yet. We know what Christ has purchased. He is refining us, working in us, moving in us, revealing in us, churning our hearts, stirring up affection.
We look forward to the second coming of Christ where all of this has been consummated completely. We rejoice because punishment has been removed, and we will never fear harm. Then I love Zephaniah 3:17. Our God is a “mighty warrior who saves.” I love the imagery of God being a mighty warrior. Think about that. God killed death. That’s incredible. What enemy could you and I have whom the warrior God of the universe wouldn’t smirk at? Our God is a warrior. He takes great delight in you according to the text. He will no longer rebuke you.
Then I love this. I just have a question about it. It says God rejoices over us in singing (Zephaniah 3:17). Here’s a quick question I don’t have an answer to, but it’s a great question. If the spoken word of God created the expanse of the universe — so powerful was the “Let there be light . . . ” that the universe continues to this day to expand in every direction — what does the singing of God do over the hearts of men and women?
What I’m Looking For
In Zephaniah 3:18, we see there will be no mourning. In verse 19, there’s no more oppression. The lame will be rescued. The exiles will be gathered. Then in verse 20, we will all be brought home. I love verse 20.
If we were honest, all of us have a bit of a restless heart, right? We have this anticipation that one day that restlessness will end. We’ve been paying it forward our whole lives, have we not?
You just can’t wait to get to high school. Then you can’t wait to get a car. Then you can’t wait to get out of high school. Then you can’t wait to get to college. Then you can’t wait to get out of college. Then you can’t wait to get a good job. You can’t wait to find a man or a woman to marry. You can’t wait to make a certain amount of money. You can’t wait to buy your first home. You can’t wait to have a kid. You can’t wait for that kid to go to school. You can’t wait for that kid to get out of your house. You can’t wait to . . .
You just keep paying it forward, and yet that “I’m not quite there yet” is persistent. It just doesn’t go away. Bono nailed it, didn’t he? “But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Then some Christians grabbed that and brutalized great theology. They sang, “I finally found what I’m looking for.” No, you’re ignoring the theology of the song.
The theology of the song is that we’re in the space between. All this is true about us right now in Christ, and yet in the space between, the refining fire of God’s love is purifying, transforming, working for our good. What we long for is the second advent, and in the coming of Christ — his life, death, and resurrection — our hearts have found their home. They breathe, they rest while we anticipate the coming of Christ.
Listen. This is what Christmas is all about. Chandler manor is decked out. Stockings are up. Trees are up. Trees — plural. I lost that fight about eight years ago. I don’t even get into it anymore. I’m just like, “All right. How many? Just two? Okay, let’s go get them.” Trees are up.
It honestly looks like Christmas vacation vomited in my house. We’re ready to roll, and my ten-year-old (for whatever reason, it’s him right now) is just geeked out of his mind. A couple of times a day we’ll get asked, “How many more days?” There are a couple of presents wrapped. They’re under the tree. Every little movement forward kind of ratchets up the anticipation.
So we’re not far. I’ll come up here, do around six thousand services, collapse and sleep, wake up. We’ll open up presents. Family will come over. We’ll laugh. We’ll have a great time with family. Then everyone will go home, and we’ll (not that night) start to take everything down. Nobody is allowed to say this, but we all feel it. There will be a tinge of disappointment. “That was it? That was it? Since Thanksgiving we’ve been gearing toward this. We’ve been amped about this.”
You’ll be frustrated with your kids because of their little selfish heart. They’ll just do something with a present that you spent good money for. Then it’s like, “Well, really I wanted the Xbox One, not the Xbox 360.” You’ll do what godly parents do, which is threaten: “I’ll take all your presents back! I’ll start a fire, if you know what I’m saying.”
What’s wired into this season is a sense of anticipation. It’s almost magical what occurs if you’re really into Christmas. I mean, we’re slated this week to go out and look at lights. We’re already three deep into Christmas parties. We have another one tonight. On Thursday, the Flower Mound Campus and elders. We’re going to go around this neighborhood and sing carols and hand out Advent guides.
I mean, we’re all in. My kids are all in. There’s this great anticipation for what is to come, and we’re all going to be disappointed. The reason we’re going to be disappointed is that all of this is a shadow of a greater reality. What’s going on right now is meant to dial me in to an anticipation for that day that being disappointed is impossible. So rich and deep is the love of God that at the consummation of all things, ten billion years from now will be just as fresh, just as beautiful, and just as freeing as it’s ever been.
That’s the inexhaustible well of God’s grace. You know how you experience something the first time? It’s just incredible. Then the more you experience, the more it kind of loses its luster. Well, according to the word of God, according to what happens at the consummation of all things, the apostle Paul tells us in the book of Ephesians that it will take the coming ages, millennia, for us to even get a sense of how deep the love of God is for those he loves — the treasures of his grace.
I don’t know how you’re wired. I think of ten billion years, and I’m like, “I don’t care what it is. I’m going to be bored out of my mind.” I can’t even now do something more than a day or two before I’m like, “All right. What’s next?” Yet so deep is the inexhaustible well of God that for eternity our delight increases, our joy grows. This is what Christmas is all about. We look back upon the coming of Christ, and we rejoice in what’s true right now.
We sing, we shout, and we rejoice because these things are true right now. Our punishment has been removed. That’s true right now. Fear is losing its power over us right now. We’ve moved further. We’ve grown. We’ve seen God work in us. God is a mighty warrior who has saved and continues to battle on our behalf. There is a loss of power of mourning over our lives. We mourn but don’t mourn like those who don’t have hope. We mourn like those who have hope.
The woman last night that Michael and I met with, who lost her husband on Tuesday, felt guilty for not sobbing and breaking down in our conversation. I’m like, “Sister, everyone is praying for you that you would have the peace that passes understanding. Don’t feel bad about this. Rejoice and be glad that you’re mourning like someone who has hope.”
This is true right now. Yes. No more oppression. Oppression is losing its power. The lame rescued. Disease losing its power. The exiles will be gathered. Brothers and sisters, we are aliens, strangers, exiles in this world. Yet Christ, the great rescuer, the great redeemer, gathers. We have been brought home now.
We sit in that, and we rejoice in that while looking for the second coming, pleading for the second advent. This is why John ends the book of Revelation with “Come, Lord Jesus. Maranatha.”
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John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including A Peculiar Glory.
(By Desiring God. Discovered by Christian Podcast Central and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Christian Podcast Central, and audio is streamed directly from their servers.)