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.

Book Review: Reading Between the Lines, Volume 2, by Glen Scrivener

Reading Between The Lines (Vol 2: NT)

Like all good sequels, there tends to be a gap between the first and the second, a gap some would say was simply too long.

I have, however, finally gotten round to reviewing Volume 2 of Glen Scrivener’s excellent devotional: Reading Between the Lines. Find my review below.

This is, once again, a longer version of an original review written for the Scottish Free Church Books.

Volume 2: The New Testament

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Volume 1 took the reader through the Old Testament, Glen’s second book of short devotions takes us through the New. Once again the focus is not on daily applications to specific issues and actions but rather a consistent and helpful pointing to Christ. As Glen works through the New Testament, his time spent dwelling on the Old shines through, and his devotions helpfully weave together a picture of Scripture that points to the absolute centrality of Christ.

This consistent engagement with the whole of Scripture is really helpful for two reasons. The first is that through constantly referencing and linking the Old to the New, Glen both shows how God’s Word is wonderfully woven together around the Good News of Christ, whilst pointing away from his own writing and back to Scripture. In his introduction to the work, Glen writes (4) “if you’re pressed for time, read Scripture not Scrivener!” In producing devotions rich in Scripture, he helpfully affords us that opportunity.

From a more practical point of view, Glen’s constant engagement with both testaments serves to add variety to the structure of the studies and the interaction required. Whilst we know the Word of God is living and active (Heb 4:12), and we can so often enjoy the beauty and awesome truth of it, it’s a widely accepted truth that quiet times can be hard. We so often struggle with daily devotions, and Reading Between the Lines does its best to help with that. By varying the structure of different devotions, breaking some down into short sections for example, Glen offers a bit of variety each day. Helpfully, his use of the Old Testament serves to offer the same. Some days require a short passage to be read from both the Old and the New, others offer reflections on passages within the devotion. God’s Word is a wonderful thing, and I found these devotions helpful in reminding me of that, even when my heart didn’t want to sit and read just then!

The variety with which Glen approaches Scripture is matched only with with his love of pictures. An evangelist by trade, Glen tells short stories, paints quick pictures, and offers helpful anecdotes. Our American friends may struggle with his affinity for cricketing metaphors, but such pictures help the reader thoughtfully engage with passages of Scripture that may seem alien or odd, or that we may think we already know so well.

I enjoyed Volume Two as much as the first, and would encourage those who are struggling in their quiet times, and those who simply want to decide what notes to use next, to give it a go. Each study is short, and wonderfully clear. As I said above, Glen doesn’t try to produce a legalistic application for us to implement every day, but rather he seeks to point us back to Jesus. His aim, for me, was wonderfully summed up at the close of a devotion on 2 Corinthians 3. Glen writes (413) “If you want deep and abiding change in the Christian life, don’t gaze at yourself. Don’t gaze at the law. Don’t even gaze at the spirit of the law. Gaze at Christ himself.”

Not everyone enjoys Bible reading notes, not everyone will enjoy the style with which Glen writes. But in times such as these, it is so crucial that we are setting aside time on a daily basis to be learning from and resting in our Heavenly Father. So if you do want to start your day by gazing at your Saviour, and you’d value some simple, short devotions to help you do that, then it may well be worth giving Reading Between the Lines a go.