Life Goes On . . . but NOW with Joy!

Life goes on after Christmas . . . as it had to for Mary and Joseph. Can you picture a higher high to come down from? All the angelic appearances, thoughts, emotions, hopes, fears, and not to mention “new-mother-not-sure-what-labor’s-going-to-be-like” nervousness come careening into this one day. And there was God’s very presence with them in flesh and blood, and that had to feel like something amazing. But then eventually the shepherds have to go back to tending their flocks, the angels leave (at least in earthly vision) and go back to their angelic duties, and Mary and Joseph have to go back home to take care of a new baby. And they don’t know what they’re doing any more than other new parents. Life went on, and maybe it was hard to remember the “high” when they were so tired and they had soiled diapers to change all day.

Maybe that’s how you feel after Christmas too. Before-Christmas lines don’t bother me so much, perhaps because I’m thinking about baking and wrapping presents and anticipating seeing family. The after-Christmas lines seem much grumpier to me, and then there are the return policies to navigate. The Christmas decorations that were such a joy to bring from the basement look like such a chore to put away now. It’s hard to “re-feel” the feeling that had you all choked up singing Christmas carols with friends or family once you’ve slid down from your own Christmas high. It’s hard to tell the 3-year old with a “Now what?” expression on his face that Christmas is all over. I mean it can’t be all “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” every day. Right?

This year, I got the song “Winter Snow” stuck in my head, a Christmas song by Audrey Assad (on the Chris Tomlin Christmas CD).

Could’ve come like a mighty storm
With all the strength of a hurricane
You could’ve come like a forest fire
With the power of Heaven in Your flame

But You came like a winter snow
Quiet and soft and slow
Falling from the sky in the night
To the earth below

When I first heard it, I didn’t pay too much attention to it. A little theologically shallow compared to, say, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, I thought. But the more I considered the metaphor, the more it struck me. It’s like watching the weather, hoping for snow, any snow, so your 3 year old will get a chance to play in it. And you wait and wait. It gets colder. Maybe now? No, no snow. Then there’s a possibility, maybe Friday. Nope. Maybe Saturday. No, still no snow. This goes on for a while (You know, in pretty typical Kansas weather fashion.) Then, you wake up one morning and it’s just there, quiet, blanketing the world. You didn’t even know it was falling while you slept. That’s a lot like how Jesus came.

That’s amazing when you think about how Christ could have come, should have come, in the way he deserved. He could have come like the king he is and always has been. He could have showed up at Herod’s palace door exactly how Herod feared and none of those baby boys would have died. He could have tipped Caesar off his throne with his pinky finger, kind of like he threw Pharaoh into the Red Sea with “an outstretched arm.” Pharaoh had brought his best chariots and horses. Laughable really. He could have overthrown Rome like that, like the disciples wanted and expected. But he didn’t. He could have, but he didn’t. He came in the “low whisper” (1 Kings 19:12). And 99.999999% of the world didn’t even know it.

We should tremble in thankfulness, though, that Jesus did not come as He deserved. Because if he had come as he deserved, it would have been with a flaming sword and all the power of heaven to bring judgment and condemnation on men’s sinful hearts. The angels would not have been singing “Peace”; they would be avenging angels pouring out God’s wrath. But instead of coming to bring judgment, he bore judgment. He did not come to condemn but to save (John 3:16-17): “he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (Eph. 2:17). If he had come as he deserved, He would have destroyed Herod and Caesar all right. . . and every other sinful person on the face of the planet . . . which would have been everyone. But the fact that Jesus came as a little baby means that, Hallelujah, God didn’t come as a consuming fire! God postponed final judgment, so that we would have a chance to repent and turn to him.

And by now, you’re probably wondering what in the world does this have to do with the day-after-Christmas lines and putting away the tree and getting back to the business of daily life. And the point is, you can’t. In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a hardened, escaped criminal gets it exactly right when he says, “Jesus threw everything off balance.” You see, you can’t just “get back to normal” or go on as if Christmas didn’t happen. Just like Connor’s “misfit” knew, Jesus’ coming was a turning point that everyone must confront eventually. Final judgment has only been postponed and so we must battle “ordinariness.” We cannot let this temporal life numb us to the eternal. Jesus’ coming on Christmas day should be the beginning of joy that carries us through the whole year, not the end of an emotional high. We must live extra-ordinary lives that are filled with the Holy Spirit, proclaiming the good news of Christmas: “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). Christ came to deal with sin once, for all, and he will come again. So does your life show how “extra-ordinary” your life is after Christ’s coming? Or is it back to the “hum drum” like the rest of the world?

So while, no, we don’t live in a world of daily angelic appearances, where life does slide into the routines of just living, we can still resolve for the joy of Christmas to continue with us all year long. You and I can still cry out “Hark!” (which just means pay extra special attention to what I’m about to say):

Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth

You can resolve (with the help of the Holy Spirit) to live in such a way that the eternal shines through the “just-getting-on-with-life-ness” and sing that all year long! So, yes, it can be “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” every day of the year.

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Celebrating Advent Through a Jesse Tree

Last year, we instituted a new Christmas tradition at our house with Aiden who was then 2 ½ yrs. old. I had been thinking about how to establish some of our own family traditions, and John and I talked a lot about how we wanted Christmas presented to our children. We wanted Christ to be the all of Christmas without a lot of the other distractions, and the Jesse Tree seemed like a great way to do this. We kept our Jesse Tree very simple the first year and mostly read to Aiden from his children’s Bible. I’m excited to see how much more he will understand this year for our 2nd annual Jesse Tree!

If you too are looking for something that puts Christ at the center of Christmas in the midst of everything else our culture throws into the mix or if you have been thinking about how to establish or re-establish some of your own Christmas traditions, I humbly submit the Jesse Tree, a way to celebrate Advent and talk about what Christ’s birth means. To use a Jesse Tree, you will read Bible passages each day of Advent, beginning with Creation and tracing the “main events,” to tell a story of God’s faithfulness to His people in providing a Messiah. That story ultimately, of course, brings us to Christ’s birth on Christmas day. After reading the Bible passage for the day, hang an ornament representing that story on a tree. As you progress through the Advent season, you will “build” Christ’s story.

You can keep it simple, of course, and just read the stories to your children, talking about how Jesus fulfills the promises God made. Or along with reading the Bible stories, you can create an actual Jesse Tree by making a banner or poster and attaching paper ornaments or by using any variation of a tree with the ornaments hung on its branches. You can use a small tree, hanging one ornament for each day, or decorate a large tree with many people handmaking their own ornaments to hang all over the tree. A traditional Jesse Tree is a large stump with a single green branch growing out of it. The ornaments are attached around the branch, usually with a star as the last symbol at the top. We use a small tree I got from the after-Christmas clearance rack, and our ornaments are a collection of ornaments I bought or made.

Since some of the stories are recounted over many chapters in the Bible, they may need to be summarized or shortened depending on the ages of your children or your time. You may also choose to read the stories from a children’s Bible geared toward the ages of your children. Two extremely good children’s Bibles are The Jesus Storybook Bible and The Big Picture Story Bible. Other characters or events may be substituted for some of those I’ve included on my outline (for instance, the story of Rahab or Samson) as long as the main storyline of human failure and God’s grace and renewed hope through a coming Messiah is clearly presented. If the Jesse Tree becomes an annual practice at your house, different aspects of the stories may be emphasized in different years.

I have included on a separate page (look at the menu at the top) an explanation of Advent and the Jesse Tree and the outline of Scripture readings I created for our family to help you get started. Share the meaning of Advent and the Jesse Tree with your family as you set up your tree and get ready to start. If nothing else, you can read some of the Scriptures yourself, preparing your own heart for the coming of the One True Savior in the form of a little baby. As you read the stories beginning in the Old Testament, look for how each story points to a coming promise: Christ. I pray that in the end you will see that “all the promises of God find their Yes in [Christ]. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Cor. 1:20).

The outline I’ve created starts tomorrow (Nov. 26) if you’re wanting to start right away! If not, ease into it or only do what works for your family. The point is not to check off all the boxes; the point is to prepare your heart for Christ’s coming!