Christmas Vacation, Matthew 1:18-25, Nativity of Our Lord Christmas Eve, December 24, 2019
It wasn’t your typical Christmas vacation. It wasn’t exactly a vacation at all. Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem. They were ordered to do so. A census was being taken, and the male head of each household had to trudge off to the family’s home-city in order to be counted. For us, the trip would be a short drive. But for Mary and Joseph, the trip would take several days, perhaps as long as a week.
As I have been reading the Christmas texts, interestingly enough, I can find nowhere in Scripture that Joseph had a donkey on which Mary could ride, or that someone else provided one. Nowhere is it even hinted at that they came by a camel caravan or that others helped them along the way with a lift in some farmer’s cart.
Without speculation, we have to consider that the possibility exist that this chosen couple might have walked to Judea. Whatever the case, they undoubtedly took their time, going no farther each day than Mary was capable of traveling. Although there were no motels or hotels, and only a few inns along the route, Jews had the custom to care for one another as they traveled from one place to another. I’m sure they were provided with some kind of accommodations along the way; with food to eat and other necessary care.
Yet, I’m sure it didn’t feel like a vacation either. Because there were no highways as we know them, popular roads were often haunted by thieves and robbers. It was better to be in the company of a crowd of villagers going on a pilgrimage than to be alone with only one or two companions. The journey could not have been an easy one.
Much of the region was uninhabited or sparsely populated, barren and difficult. The availability of water was probably limited. I can only image all these troublesome concerns must have bothered Joseph immensely. Yet he was obligated to obey the Roman order. He left Nazareth with his pregnant wife, and a deep, deep, trusting faith in God.
Although far from a pleasant trip, it must have been like the first Christmas vacation ever. Camping out, walking the dusty trails, living off the kindness of others. Sounds like the best vacation ever, right? Few of us would consider that, the time of our lives.
Yet not one word in the Bible attests to the difficulties. Joseph never complains. Mary remembers only the joy of the birth of Jesus. Even their lodging in a stable the night of our Savior’s birth is not recounted as a grievance. There was something remarkably noble about this young couple, something uniquely tranquil and peaceful.
This trip was not only the first Christmas vacation, but by far the most glorious. Few travelers can recount the brilliance of an amazing star, or the glory of God shining about the heavenly host as an angelic choir sings the first Christmas carol.
That year other vacationers experienced the advent of the Messiah, and never since have shepherds been so frightened or searched so eagerly for their Savior. Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God’s Son, our Lord and Savior was born on that Christmas vacation, and today the world remembers it and more!
Some of you may be on a Christmas vacation now, while others have only a few days off. However, we can all sense some of the wonder of that first Christmas by looking for the Christ Child in the eyes of infants and toddlers and seeking its gladness in the laughter of children. Look for some of Christ’s love in the embraces and kisses of relatives and friends.
Jesus is no longer in the manger, but He can be discovered smiling at you through the eyes of strangers, whispering to you in the greetings of neighbors, and singing to you in the music of choirs and organs and soloists. In those moments Christmas becomes more than a vacation, more of a holy encounter, because we, like the shepherds of old, we behold, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (1:22-23).
This encounter that changes our lives is seeing the baby Jesus, the one who came to be our Savior. He lived a holy life that we could not live and died a horrible death on the cross in our place. He paid for the sins of the world when He died, and when He rose from the dead, He demonstrated His victory over death and hell. That forgiveness and that victory is ours when we believe in Jesus and trust in Him. Then, He becomes the Lord of our lives.
Eugene Peterson, who died last year, was an American Presbyterian minister, scholar, theologian, author, and poet. He told a story about a Christmas vacation from school when he was eight years old. His family did not travel as it was during the Great Depression. That year his mother focused on some words by the prophet Jeremiah (10:2–4), which seemed to disdain Christmas trees. She ordered that no Christmas tree be set up in their house. She tried to help Eugene and his younger sister rejoice in the real meaning of Christmas rather than in trees and gifts, tinsel and decorations.
Eugene was ashamed. He spent his vacation lying to his schoolmates and neighbors about the lack of a carefully decked tree in their front window. “I was embarrassed, humiliated was more like it, humiliated as only an eight year-old can be, humiliated.” He wrote “I was terrified of what my friends in the neighborhood would think.”
The neighbor kids generally went to see one another’s gifts under the tree, but that year Eugene kept the other children out of the house with unreasonable excuses. That Christmas he felt no comfort or joy.
The next year, however, the decorated Christmas tree was back without any explanation. “I never learned what authority preempted Jeremiah in the matter of the Christmas tree,” he said. The vacation he would prefer to forget; yet later he would eagerly discuss. It no longer seems silly or embarrassing or a vacation to be forgotten. Instead, he was thankful for the experience.
“Thank you,” he wrote to his mother, “for providing me with a taste of the humiliation that comes from pursuing a passionate conviction in Christ. Thank you for introducing into my spirit a seed of discontent with all cultural displays of religion, a seed that has since grown tree-sized. Thank you for a shield against the seduction of culture-religion. Thank you for the courage to give me Jesus without tinsel, embarrassing as it was for me.”
The pains of the first Christmas vacation are overshadowed by the joy of the birth of Jesus. We may not like discomfort, difficulty, and decisions over which we have no control, yet for the holy family and for countless others, these dilemmas have enabled them to focus more clearly on the Christ Child and the love He brings. So, during this Christmas vacation, amid any problems that arises, look to the manger, look to the cross and see Jesus.
When Jesus is our Lord, then we can think of our Christmas holiday as more than a vacation. We can live Christmas every day. We can live Christmas and let its message be seen in us and through us for more than these few days, but every day from now on. Have a merry Christmas. Make it more than a vacation; make your life one by which the whole world will benefit. Let the Christ of Christmas live in and through you. Amen.
Note: This sermon is a based on “The First Christmas Vacation” by Richard Andersen, which appeared in Concordia Pulpit Resources, volume 10, issue 1.