“…You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
…“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us)….And he called his name Jesus.” –Matthew 1:21-25
Christmas is about Jesus. Christmas is about Jesus the Savior of sinners, God “with us”, God in the flesh who came to us as a child in a pitiful manger equipped for cattle not for Deity. Christmas is about Jesus who came to be born to live for His people, to die for them, to be raised from the dead for them, and to be exalted in His ascension-enthronement at God’s right hand as Eternal Lord and King on David’s Throne.
At Christmastime, we need a bold and enduring biblical faith in Christ to be realists about our situation in this present age and to have true hope to behold what God has done for us in Christ. Biblical hope in Jesus Christ should be our focus at Christmas. Yet oftentimes at Christmastime, we can be tempted to be either bloated with sentimentalism or tainted with cynicism concerning hope in our lives.
What are sentimentalism and cynicism you may ask (and I’m more concerned to define these terms with how people actually live and act, not by formal definitions of these two things)? Both sentimentalism and cynicism are wrong and unbiblical responses to the world as we know it. Sentimentalism tends to see only the good in the world and tends to overlook the bad; cynicism tends to only see too much of the bad without acknowledging any of the good. A person characterized by sentimentalism is one who thinks (or better, feels!) too highly of sinful man and what man can actually achieve for good in this world. Those given to the temptation to sentimentalism are those who gush with unrealistic hope for good times and good change that is possible in and through man, or by peering back to some nostalgic time that they feel better achieved this.
Though the Bible gives great hope, sentimental folks are not grounded in the truth and reality of God, and so their “hope” is nothing more than a feeling (and sadly when sentimentalists do not see their “hopes” fulfilled in their lives, they then idealize, or idolize and worship the past, imagining that things were better “Back then…alas”). Sentimental folks don’t talk a lot about sin and sinfulness and the offense to God and the misery it has brought with it, and they don’t necessarily see the world clearly and realistically in all its troubles. If sentimental folks do see the world in its troubles, they often choose not to really look closely and honestly at all.
Folks who tend to be characterized by cynicism claim and often act as if they have lost hope and no longer expect that good times and change can or will come. This hopelessness is not grounded in God’s truth and reality any more than sentimentalism. Cynicism is often more of a reaction to sentimentalism; you see this reaction at generational levels today. Grandparents that were sentimentalists might produce grandsons who are cynics. Oftentimes young people tend toward more sentimentalism, and they grow into cynicism after experiencing pain and difficulties in a cold world. Cynicism often masquerades itself as self-realized maturity, whereas sentimentalism might masquerade as wide-eyed, child-like innocence and the goodness of man.
You can hear sentimentalism in Christmas songs all around us an on the radio and in the “air” at this time of year. Crooners croon: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” Listen in for a moment:
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year
With the kids jingle belling
And everyone telling you “Be of good cheer”
It’s the most wonderful time of the year
It’s the hap-happiest season of all
With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings
When friends come to call
It’s the hap- happiest season of all…”
“With the kids jingle belling?” Is there anyone at your home “jingle belling” right now? Honestly. “It’s the hap-happiest season of all…” Is it really? For all?? Have you seen the poor and destitute? Have you peaked into the homes past the well-lit trees in the windows to behold the people full of strife and rampant dysfunction? Have you seen the people with the Rudolph antlers and the shiny nose after the Christmas party dealing with depression and loneliness and alcoholism seeking change in clinical therapy and recovery programs? Have you seen the little the rest of the world has in comparison to the riches we have as Americans, and how impoverished many people are who have never owned one of Disney’s “princesses” (and never will)? Sentimentalism sings “Fa-la-la-la-la” when there is sadness and misery all around us. Sentimentalism sings “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” forgetting that many cannot afford chestnuts, and are barely staying warm by a fire- -if they have one at all!
You can *hear* sentimentalism better at Christmas than cynicism, because cynics don’t necessarily sing about Christmas at Christmastime, unless they are singing about grandma getting run over by a reindeer coming home from a Christmas visit, or a man seeking to seduce his girl because it’s cold outside, or the one-horse open sleigh turning over and seriously injuring Frosty the Snowman, or wanting an alien for Christmas. But most real cynics typically don’t “do Christmas” and therefore they don’t sing much about it.
Another example of hearing sentimentalism is to recall the great Jim Reeves’ Christmas song from the 1950s: “A long time ago in Bethlehem…And man shall live forevermore because of Christmas day.” Now I’m not going to criticize the great Jim Reeves (and for those who know not of Jim Reeves, well you should know this wonderful singer of times past—there’s my sentimentalism for you!), but Reeves’ song teaches us that mankind will live forever just because of Christmas; this is not true; this is classical liberalism. This famous song “Mary’s Boy Child” seems to be saying that just the knowledge of Jesus being born at Christmastime will make everything all right at Christmas. He sings “…And man shall live forevermore because of Christmas Day…” (and I don’t know what kind of person Reeves was so this is not criticism of the man, just the message).
But Christmas is so much more than merely a message of man trying to change himself, or being overwhelmed with “Christmas-ey” sentimental thoughts and feelings of Jesus in a manger that will make us all nice, comfortable people. Sentimentalism will not hold out true hope for anyone; sentimentalism will just not do. Sentimentalism too easily embraces classical liberalism which is summarized in this way: “A God without wrath brought [good] men into a kingdom without judgment, through a Christ without a cross (H. R. Niebuhr).” No. The message of Christmas is more than merely getting Linus to tell us what Christmas is all about, and then we change in response to the commercialism, etc., and we decide to get a small and meek Christmas tree rather than a great and shiny one, and we are all changed- –and we all do it ourselves.
No, we must be changed. We must be changed by a sovereign work of Almighty God. The raw and wonderful and glorious truth of Christmas is that God was born into the world and took upon human flesh to be redeem sinners so that we would be given the power by His grace and Holy Spirit to be transformed into new people; a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). Mere sentimentalism will not do. We must be changed from the inside out; sinful man must be changed from the heart. We are not good; we must be made good. By. God’s. Grace. Alone.
Now those characterized by cynicism are onto this, but they don’t have the answer either. Hopelessness is not the answer for misguided hopes!
Usually folks who are cynics (not in the formal philosophical, Marcus Aurelius sense) are those who are “converted” from sentimentalism, but they find that the “hope” that they had in the future, and in the love of human beings never appeared, and that their warm-feelings of the brotherhood of man and peace and kindness faintly faded into a memory, and this “hope” never manifested itself in their heart nor in the hearts of others. Cynics thought at one time things might get better, but they have now lost hope that good times and change will never come, and so let’s just mope knowingly. But this cynical hopelessness is not grounded in the truth and reality of God any more than sentimentalism.
Cynical folks think they know. Better. They are always giving “knowing glances” and looks and sneers to those who are especially eat up with sentimentalism. Imagine two people are having coffee at a local coffee shop. One is a sentimental person, and the other is a cynic (who formerly was a sentimental person). Bob the sentimentalist says: “You know, I just love Christmas, the lights, the good cheer, the ‘decking the halls with boughs of holly’, and gathering with family- -don’t you just love it?! If only it would be Christmas all through the year?” The sentimentalist will think on the bright lights and surface things of Christmastime, with false hopes that good can come and will come through people. The sentimentalist forgets the loneliness, poverty, grief, guilt, and funerals that still take place on and around December 25th!
Maria, the cynic responds: “Get a life, Bob! I don’t do Christmas. It is all fake and surface. No one really cares and after the lights are taken down off the freshly cut trees (those trees could have continued to grow by the way!), and no one cares for others, and the good cheer is all conjured up with hopes that someone will give me a present (but they just give it to me so that I will give one back to them in return; I know). At Christmas, I think of those who suffer, and those who are lonely, and when I think back to my memories of Christmas, all I can recall is a big turkey on the table surrounded by gluttonous dysfunctional family members who had too much to drink, and did not care a lick about anyone but themselves.”
But Christmas is about Jesus, and Jesus came to save both sentimentalists and cynics–all who will believe in Him shall find true hope and life with the forgiveness of sins.
What do we find in both the sentimentalist and the cynic that is biblical and true and worth noting? Both the sentimentalist and cynic are trying to find hope in this world of sin and misery. We are image-bearers all, who were made to be happy and hopeful. We were created to live in God’s presence and find the “happy ever life”. We were created to live in paradise, and we find that we have indeed put up a parking lot and much more, and we are far from our original home, and lost with regard to our true destiny. The sentimentalist is trying to seek hope in man’s ability to change and do good; the cynic has given up hope, but deep down would like to find hope, but would never (or rarely) admit it. Both are missing Jesus, and the important fact that Christmas is about Jesus.
Both sentimentalists and cynics are imbalanced and wrongheaded. Jesus came to give the true hope in Himself for the sentimentalist, and to tell them that the nostalgia that they look for was found in paradise with God, but man fell into sin and rebellion and needs salvation. Jesus came to give true hope in Himself to the cynic who sees so clearly through everything and everyone that he fails to see anything at all. He looks not at, but through and thus is blinded (C. S. Lewis), and the Gospel says: “Behold” (“look here”) there is a Savior to give you what you do not deserve, to cause you to really enjoy life, to give real hope, and to teach you to not be afraid to give of yourself to others.
You must see Jesus Christ as your only hope; Christmas is about Jesus your only real and enduring hope. His name is “Jesus” for He will save His people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). This we must emphasize. God would become flesh and seek and save sinners. God would not overlook sinfulness and the selfish deeds of mankind, but would indeed judge them. However, he would send Christ Jesus, His only Begotten Son to be cursed and judged in the stead, or in the place of all who would believe. God sent Jesus into the world not to condemn the world but so the world might be saved from both unbelieving, imbalanced sentimentalism and unbelieving, imbalanced cynicism.
Jesus came to live for sinners; Jesus came to die for sinners on the accursed cross; Jesus came to shed His blood for those who believe, and grant to all who believe a perfect righteousness before God that is received by faith alone; Jesus came to be raised from the dead and seated at God’s right hand. God offered Jesus to be judged in place of sinful man; God justly and righteously punished sin in Christ, but God justifies or makes right sinners who believe in Him (see this great hope in Romans 3:23-26):
ESV Romans 3:23-26: “…For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
The biblical truth is that God disagrees with and contradicts the sentimentalist that man could change on his own or have any hope ultimately apart from Christ; the Bible teaches that man is cursed by sin and under the condemnation of God, described as being “without God and without hope in the world” (Eph. 2:12ff). God disagrees with and contradicts the cynic who thinks all is hopeless, because God graciously offers true and enduring hope for mankind, and salvation and peace with God for helpless, hopeless sinners in Jesus Christ. Jesus’ name “JESUS” means God saves. God comes into our dark and miserable state, and grants us hope in Jesus. Jesus comes to rescue us out of our sinful estate by living and dying for us.
This is true hope. This is real and lasting hope that changes man from within. This is the hope that can turn our false hopes and blurred dreams of what man can do into realizing the power of the Holy Spirit and how He transforms us by His grace, and can give us hope and make all our dreams come true in Christ. Even as we live in a fallen world characterized by sin and misery, pain, suffering, death, poverty, and helplessness, there is hope for us in Jesus Christ. Hope to have peace with God, and great joy in the midst of whatever affliction He call us to live through. Even after all the lights come down, and we move into the “bleak mid-winter” we can know the burning, shining, painfully and deeply satisfying, joyful hope that is possible through Jesus Christ no matter what time of year!
We can embrace the tension of the reality of living in a world with great hope (as the sentimentalist sings about at Christmas), and in a world still tainted by the disease which is sin and misery (as the cynic refuses to sing about at Christmas). For the sentimentalist, I would say that you must stop painting things too rosy in this world even at Christmastime. This world is fallen, and although it is a good world created by God, it is infested with many sinfully selfish and greedy people who care only for themselves, and it is a world much characterized by misery and enslavement to sin and the devil.
And Jesus came to cure us; Jesus came to remove the curse as far as it is found! For the cynic, you must stop painting things too hopeless in this world especially at Christmastime. You, too, are a hypocrite and part of the problem. You sneer at the sentimentalists “knowingly” but you too have no answers, you too, have no hope. You are right that things are wrong, but you are infested with this sinful dis-ease too- -and Jesus is your only hope.
Stop hoping in something like a Christmas season that is not rooted in God’s truth and reality; stop the hopeless rant about the Christmas season that is not rooted in God’s truth and reality. Notice the sane and biblical balance between the imbalances of both sentimentalism and cynicism in Isaac Watts’ Joy to the World; there is both sorrow and love; hopelessness and hope!:
“No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.”
Christmas is about Jesus. But I’ve said that already.
Love in Christ, and Merry Christmas!