Book Review: The Christmas We Didn’t Expect, David Mathis (The Good Book Company, 2020)

The Christmas We Didn't Expect

There are plenty of Advent devotionals, and there are many good ones that I could commend to you. David Mathis’ new book The Christmas We Didn’t Expect offers a set of twenty-four daily reflections on the coming of Christ. It is a fantastic book, and one that this reviewer would highly recommend. In fact, I’m looking forward to picking it back up in a few weeks as my wife and I plan to work through these devotions together this December.

These short Advent devotionals are designed to help us wait rightly for Christmas morning. Taking as our example the likes of the Shepherds and Mary, Mathis encourages us to marvel at God made man. These devotions will help prepare your heart for the day when we most obviously gather around the truth of the incarnation. Advent is a period of waiting: waiting for the day, for the Lord, to arrive. This book helps us to wait well, expectantly and with anticipation, as we long for that day.

Our God Made Man

At the heart of Mathis’ book is a desire to cause his reader to wonder at Christ Himself. To that end the studies are simple, yet full of delight in the glorious truth of the incarnation. Mathis sums up his own amazement in his introduction (12-13).

“What God so stunningly reveals at that first Noël is that when he himself finally does come, it is not in cloud or wind or fire or earthquake, or even simply in a still, small voice (1 Kings 19:11-12). But he comes in the fullness of his creation: as human. He comes as one of us and dignifies our own species in doing so.”

Christ coming down was the seismic event that all of history had been building towards. It’s no exaggeration to say that; indeed it’s a painful understatement! It’s all too easy to see a truth like the incarnation as an abstract, or academic ideal. Yet to marvel at what it truly means, that God Himself dignified our species by becoming one of us, to save us, is a real joy. The incarnation is the incredible truth at the heart of Christmas and these Advent devotions so helpfully point us to it.

A Helpful Structure and a Heavenly Focus.

Mathis has written a series of gentle studies that simply and humbly bring the reader face to face with the God of the Bible. Each study is followed by a reflective and honest prayer that helps us speak with God in light of what we have read. This book is simply laid out, all to help the reader focus on the glorious God who came down at Christmas.

In his introduction, Mathis calls Christ’s birth “humility on mission” (14). God came down, fully God and fully man, to carry out the greatest rescue plan. The first Christmas was no accident, the incarnation was no afterthought. It was God’s glorious plan unfolding.

Through the helpful structure of these twenty-four short studies, Mathis helps the reader focus on the divine truth at the heart of Christmas. Our God came down. In a year when Christmas can seem like salvation in and of itself – we’re longing for it to bring a bit of normality and stability – Mathis turns our eyes back to Heaven.

Conclusion

These Advent devotionals are winsome and clear, yet full of wonder and delight at the joyful truth of the incarnation. In any year this would be a great book to help you explore God’s word in the run-up to Christmas. But perhaps this year this book is even more pertinent. This Christmas will look different, no matter how much we might hope otherwise, and we may find that hard. But whether or not this Christmas is what we hope or expect, in The Christmas We Didn’t Expect we are reminded of the single truth that really does make Christmas the most special of days. That God came down to save us, and He did it in the person of Jesus Christ.


This review is, once again, a longer version of a review for Free Church Books. You can buy The Christmas We Didn’t Expect from 10ofThose or The Good Book Company.

Book Review: Merry Christmas And a Happy New Year (reflections) by Timothy Cross (DayOne 2020)

This is an unusual little book of reflections, and to be totally honest, before opening it up I was sceptical at what it was trying to do. Cross doesn’t offer a series of dated studies, or a series of deeply structured devotions. Instead, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year offers the reader 30 short reflections for the festive season. These aren’t necessarily designed to be read along with the days of December (it’s one short for that, and the chapters would have Christmas fall on the fifteenth if you did try!)

Instead, this short book offers 30 reflections to be read throughout the festive period, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. Simple and short, yet packed full of Biblical truth and helpful commentary, Cross provides a book packed full of Christian wisdom. The reflections are also augmented with stanzas from poems or carols, that support the message of each study and help the reader dwell on the Biblical truth they have seen.

A particular point worth highlighting: Cross ends each reflection with a few short points to consider. He doesn’t leave the reader with lengthy study questions, or even with a suggested prayer. Instead he leaves simply a few thoughts for the reader to take the time to mull over. It’s a different way of doing Christmas devotions, but it’s a helpful pattern to gently and humbly rest in God’s truth at the end of each of these reflections.

I really enjoyed this book. Whilst sceptical at first, I was won over by Cross’ honest style, pastoral heart and Scriptural grounding. Although not perfect, I enjoyed how the reflections were short, simple and open-ended. You could make as much or as little of his points for reflection at the end of each chapter as you like. I also enjoyed the fact that Cross writes studies not only for the Christmas period, but also some for the time around New Year. At a time of year when many people, believers or not, are prone to question certain aspects of their lives, consider hopes and dreams for the year ahead, and plan out their next steps, I found these to be helpful reflections to point us back towards Scripture and ground us in the words of our Heavenly Father. Cross was also honest in his approach; he doesn’t ignore the fact that this isn’t always ‘the most wonderful time of the year’ for us all. Loved ones are absent, perhaps permanently, and things might not be how we would like. But these reflections turn our attention back to Christ, our hope and joy at Christmas, in the New Year, and at all times.

I would recommend this book, unusual though it is. It’s not your standard Advent devotion, nor is it really a daily Quiet Time aide. It’s more of a supplement to both of the above. It makes for easy reading, whilst challenging the heart with the truths that lie at the centre of what this season is all about. It would be a good book to have by your bedside, or on your desk over the coming months, to dip into once or twice a day for a short read and a prayerful meditation.

In a world dominated by the crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic, as Christmas looks more and more likely to be ‘cancelled’ this year, this book is a helpful read to remember what the festive season is really all about. Christmas cannot really be cancelled, because the glorious truth of God made man is ever sure. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas, and this book is a simple, Biblical and gracious testament to that glorious Good News.

Rockin’ around the Saturnalia tree? Christmas in the Early Church.

Image result for christmas"

Wednesday is Christmas day. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been buying presents, going along to carol services, and decorating your tree. The prospect of a week off of work looms large and joyful, and time spent with family and friends fills you with joy/despair (delete as appropriate).

The Early Church celebrated many things together. They ate meals as church families regularly (far more than we do today), they celebrated the resurrection as the sure foundation of their faith. But for the first three hundred years of Church History, it doesn’t seem that they celebrated Christmas.

Indeed, it’s only in 356 that we find the words “25th Dec, natus Christus in Betleem Judae.” Quite literally, 25th December, Christ is born in Bethlehem, Judea. So for three hundred years, we have no record of the Church or any other Christian group celebrating Christmas. The death of Christ and of notable saints or historic Christian figures received much more attention than their birth, and at Epiphany celebrations on the 6th January the Church was more concerned with reflecting on Christ’s baptism than His birth. It seems that Christ’s birth was not something reflected with a special day of celebration.

Why December 25th?

Quite why we celebrate Christ’s birth on the 25th of December then remains a mystery. Some have posited that it super-ceded the Roman festival of the Saturnalia, others suggest that as the Catholic Church began to celebrate Christ’s conception on March 25th, his birth naturally falls nine months later.

The former seems more likely, and the 25th of December reflects not only the Roman festival in honour of Saturn but also the Persian festival to Mithra. These major festivals may naturally have become usurped by a growing Christian population in the Roman world, keen to encourage pagans to comfortably assimilate to the new religion.

Either way, it seems unlikely that Christ was born on the 25th December, and the Bible certainly gives no date or time. Regardless of quite why the 25th was picked as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the most important thing to not was that it was. And for hundreds of years, Christians have taken time to celebrate this birth, of a baby boy to a humble carpenter in Bethlehem, some two thousand years ago.

Why Celebrate at all?

Christians celebrate because this baby is special. When Mary became pregnant, the Lord said to her husband Joseph:

“She will give birth to a Son, and you shall give Him the name Jesus, because He has come to save His people from their sins.”

Matthew 1:21 (NIV).

Jesus came to save. Jesus, this baby in a Manger, was born to save men and women across the world and throughout history, from themselves.

Because we all need it. Look at the world around us, look at our own hearts. So often the biggest problem we deal with is ourselves. We cause trouble for ourselves, we make foolish and unkind decisions. Our actions, words and thoughts can be dirty, cruel and selfish. And the Bible says that’s wrong. And we know in our hearts that it is.

The Bible also says that this wrongdoing, what the Bible calls sin, is punishable by death. That’s why death is the certainty we all face. But on Christmas day two thousand years ago, a baby was born to challenge that. A baby was born to die. When the wise men visited, they brought gifts fit for a king (gold) a god (frankincense) and a corpse (myrrh). Myrrh, an embalming oil for bodies in the tomb. Christ was born to face death. Not in the way we are, as an inevitable end to our lives, but to face it head on.

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, by taking upon His perfect and divine shoulders, the punishment of death our sins deserve. And in its place, He gives us His goodness, His right standing with God, and we walk free. Not just in this life, but for all eternity. The baby in the manger came to bring hope to a world that seems so hopeless.

That’s why we celebrate Him. A baby born to die. A King born to save.

Maybe this Christmas you could meet this King for the first time? The links below are just to help you explore who He is, and think about why it is we celebrate Christmas quite so enthusiastically, every year.

https://www.ligonier.org/blog/real-meaning-christmas/

http://speaklife.org.uk/HeCameDown/

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+1&version=NIV

Hoping for better? Elections, Christmas and Augustine.

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In the UK we’ve just had a General Election. It’s been our third in five years, and possibly one of the most bitterly fought and divisive campaigns of recent decades.

The result has been clear, and many are not happy with it. Many were hoping for something else, many were hoping for a change of government, or at least a change of leadership.

One of our politicians, the Lib Dem Leader Jo Swinson, had this to say as she gave a speech shortly after losing her own seat (and just before resigning as party leader.) “For millions of people in this country, these results will bring dread and dismay, and people are looking for hope.”

People are looking for hope.

Maybe people put their hope in our politicians this election campaign, and maybe millions were left disappointed. But Jo was certainly right about one thing. People are looking for hope.

Now the election is over, as a country our attention turns to Christmas. The somewhat incongruous placement of Santa outfits at polling stations or Christmas trees in TV studios throughout election day was a reminder that this election comes before the biggest holiday celebration of the year.

Christmas is a huge deal, and it has been for centuries. Today, for many, Christmas means gathering the family, getting a week off work, and eating and drinking too much. And Christmas is a season of hope. People wish one another good tidings, they speak of festive cheer, and they hope for so much. They hope they’ll find time to get the Christmas shopping done, they hope they’ll manage to survive the ordeal of the office Christmas party. And perhaps they hope for bigger things. They hope all the family will get on this year. They hope that that elderly or sick relative will be well enough to come. We put a lot of hope into Christmas.

We put a lot of hope in our politicians. We put a lot of hope into our Christmas plans. But it never quite seems to work out.

Politically, millions lost out on their preferred result, and as for Christmas? You never quite get the gift you want, the family always manage to mess something up, and there’s so often that inevitable reminder of someone absent who was celebrating along with you last year.

Hope can be awfully disappointing. Because we so often hope in the wrong things.

Politicians can promise hope for a better Britain, Christmas can spark hope for a happy holiday, but there’s only one hope that never lets us down.

Hope Has a Name.

True hope has a name. That name is Jesus.

Augustine wrote a short work entitled: The Handbook on Faith, Hope and Love. In it, he alluded to the hope that Christians have, and he argued why that hope was true hope. Augustine spoke of “the hope of future good”, a hope that “leads to eternal life.” But why was this true hope and how could one hope in it?

Augustine goes on.

For when there is a question as to whether a man is good, one does not ask what he believes, or what he hopes, but what he loves. For the man who loves aright no doubt believes and hopes aright; whereas the man who has not love believes in vain, even though his beliefs are true; and hopes in vain, even though the objects of his hope are a real part of true happiness; unless, indeed, he believes and hopes for this, that he may obtain by prayer the blessing of love.

Augustine, Handbook, 117.

Here, Augustine links hope with love. But not just any love. Loving right. Loving good. And Augustine knows where true love is found: in God.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 

1 John 4:7-8 (NIV)

We can love and we can be loved, because God is love. Love comes from God, it pours out of His very nature. And love, says Augustine, leads to hope. And the great hope of Christians, in the Early Church and today, is Christ.

Because Christ came to Earth out of love. The love of the Father for a broken and lost people. The love of the Father to bring His children home. The love of the Father to save hopeless people, and to fill them with a lasting hope in Himself.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him would not perish, but have eternal life.

John 3:16 (NIV)

God SO loved. That He sent Jesus Christ. He sent His only Son, to live and die in our place. To bear the punishment our sinful lives deserved, and to offer us real and lasting hope. Hope of an eternal life with Him, hope of an eternal love with God’s family. Hope of a Father winning back His children for all eternity.

This Christmas, hope is not found in the family we gather round us, or the social faux pas we avoid. Hope is found in a baby, born 2000 years ago. Hope is found in the God of Augustine. Hope is found in Jesus Christ. Sent because God loved so much, that He couldn’t bear to leave us hopeless.

Put your hope in that. Put your hope in Him.