Home for Christmas “Help!”
Discover the power of grace, truth, and time in transforming challenging family dynamics this Christmas – a must-attend for anyone navigating the complexities of family gatherings.
I want to say hi to everyone in this room and those joining us online.
If we haven’t met yet, my name is Matt VanCleave. I’m the teaching pastor here at Blue Oaks.
And we’re in our Christmas series, Home for Christmas.
It’s a weird thing — that phrase can evoke so much longing, but also fear, because often, there will be someone sitting around the table who has caused pain.
We go home for Christmas, and it’s like, “This is a difficult person.”
Maybe there’s a difficult relationship. Someone is irritating. There’s just something about someone in your family that rubs you the wrong way.
This message is about — how do we prepare for that?
Now, we need to love difficult people in our everyday lives, but the holidays are a time when we need to especially work hard at this.
Let me say who this message is not for.
This message is not for you if, when you go home, you have no difficult people in your life.
If everyone who will be be sitting around the table this Christmas is a person of enormous emotional intelligence and relational maturity, this message is not for you.
If no one around the table is hard for you to track with.
If there won’t be any conflict.
If no one gets sarcastic.
If no one has messages that are laced with bigotry or political opinion.
If no one talks too much, or drinks too much, or smokes too much, or brags too much, or is too opinionated.
If there have never been any relational difficulties in your family, never any divorces.
The children have always felt only encouragement by the parents, never any pressure.
The parents have always felt nothing but joy in the choices their children have made.
No addictions, no job problems, no insults, no one who doesn’t show up because they’re a long way away, no crying babies, no difficulty in any way.
If there’s just no difficulty for you in your family — this message is not for you. In fact, this church might not even be for you because at this church, no one has it all together.
Look around you for a moment. If this is your first time in church and you feel out of place because you think we’re all good people and you’re not so good, you need to know you’re surrounded by people who have out-sinned you ten to one. Don’t let all these pretty faces fool you.
Alright, so for everyone living in the real world, who needs to hear this message — I have a movie clip I want to show you.
I love it. You may or may not, but it’s from the movie Home Alone.
A lot of people watch this movie at Christmas time.
There’s a kid named Kevin. He loves his family, but his family drives him crazy. And he has a wish that he could make them all go away.
Then he wakes up, and they’re all gone.
The spectrum of his emotions around this is incredible. Check it out.
Video: Home Alone
This message is for anyone who has ever thought, “I’d like to be able to make someone in my family disappear.”
You can actually do that.
The word for that is murder.
You know, part of what’s so striking about Jesus’ teaching is he says if you even want to murder someone, if you just think, “I wish that person didn’t exist,” that actually is an indication NOT of that person’s problem but of my heart problem.
So I want to talk today about what are the gifts you give that will help someone else change.
It’s kind of a weird thing. Even if you love someone, if you go up to them and say, “I know how you ought to change. Here it is,” they don’t receive that very well.
There are three wonderful gifts that flow out of the character of Jesus.
We’re going to get to them, but I want to get to them in a different way today.
I want to start by talking about the people of the world into which Jesus was born.
This is Christmas. So many people have this unreal, cleaned up view of the manger scene and the world into which Jesus was born.
The problem with that is we can start to think, “You know, if Jesus had to sit at my table, he wouldn’t be so optimistic about the ability to love everyone.”
Alright, so we’re going to look at the Christmas story through a different lens today.
We’re going to look at the difficult people who would have been at the birth of Jesus so we’re then ready to think about the difficult people around our table.
Here we go.
The first group of people I want to look at are the —
Some people are going to feel like, “Man, I wish life didn’t turn out this way.”
There will be a kind of heaviness to them. And that can infect everyone.
These disappointed people were at the very first Christmas.
There was this couple — Zechariah and Elizabeth.
What we know about them is they’re old, they’ve tried real hard to serve God, but they’ve never had children.
Infertility is a painful thing. Some of you know that pain. And Christmas can make it even more painful.
In the ancient world, added to that was the reality that barrenness had a stigma attached to it.
The assumption was that if you’re not having kids, it’s because you’ve displeased God. There’s something wrong. Or you don’t have enough faith.
In particular, in the ancient world, if the couple didn’t have children, the general assumption was — it’s the woman’s fault.
There was a story in the ancient world of a king who took seven different wives, and none of them had children, but the assumption was still that all seven of them were at fault. It couldn’t be his fault, because he’s the man. He’s the king.
Zechariah and Elizabeth would be a disappointed couple.
They would be old and would have to live with — what do we do when every day, every year, we pray, and nothing happens?
All the people look at us and say, “There must be something wrong with you.”
What kind of strain would that put between the two of them?
One day, they find out actually that they were going to have a child.
And you would think that would make everything great, but even then, it was a little complex.
An angel came to Zechariah. He was a priest. He was supposed to be a man of great faith.
He was serving in the temple. The angel said to him, “Zechariah, you and Elizabeth are going to have a child.”
Zechariah’s response was not, “That’s great. Thank you, God.”
Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” (Luke 1:18)
He doesn’t believe the angel.
The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.” (Luke 1:19-20)
Zechariah can’t say a word for nine months because of his lack of faith.
I wonder if Elizabeth was tempted to say to him, “All these years we thought it was my fault. You’re the priest, and you can’t even believe the angel. That’s why you can’t say anything.”
Every day he comes home — “How did work go?” He can’t say a word.
There’s no ESPN. He can’t do anything but listen to Elizabeth’s commentary on how things are going.
Alright, that’s the first couple — disappointed people.
The second group of people are:
There are going to be stressed people at your table this Christmas.
I want to tell you about 2 people who lived in some of the most stressful conditions in the history of the world.
Again, when we look at manger scenes, Mary and Joseph almost always look so serene and blissful — all is calm, all is bright.
Think about what was going on in their lives.
This is the world Jesus was entering:
Mary was probably 14 years old when they got engaged. And this is what we’re told happens.
Before they came together [before they began to live as a husband and wife, before they were sexually intimate], she [ Mary ] was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. (Matthew 1:18-19)
Before they were sexually involved with each other, Mary was found to be pregnant.
Who found out Mary was pregnant?
That wasn’t supposed to be a trick question. I thought you would understand how this works.
Mary would have found out she was pregnant. She would have told Joseph.
Of course, we don’t know all of the details, but I imagine she would have said to Joseph, “An angel came to me. Joseph, I’m pregnant. He’s the Son of God. Joseph, we’re going to raise him together.”
Apparently, Joseph doesn’t believe her because he knows she’s pregnant, but he’s planning on divorcing her.
What does it mean is going on between the two of them?
Joseph says to her, “Really, Mary? You’re sticking with this angel story? Really?”
He says they’re going to get divorced.
Now, you can imagine Mary is hurting.
Then Joseph gets a visit from the angel. And then he has to go back to Mary and say, “Alright, I’m having second thoughts about this divorce thing. I think we should get married.”
Now, I don’t know how she responded, but I know in my marriage — if I believe a stranger, even if it was an angel, and I don’t believe my wife, it’s not going to go over real well.
In addition to that, we’re told Mary and Joseph were from Galilee.
In ancient Israel, Galilee was a rural place. It would have been considered stricter than other parts of the country when it came to standards about sexuality.
So they’re going to have a baby, and everyone would know about it. And Mary would be judged for being unfaithful to Joseph, or the two of them would be judged for being unfaithful to God.
And they’re going to Bethlehem when it’s tax time. Rome is taxing everyone.
Which would mean now there’s financial stress ask well.
They’re a poor couple. We know that when they go to the temple with the baby Jesus, all they can give are doves. That’s what the poorest people would give.
So they would be under financial pressure.
Then it’s tax season, which doesn’t help.
Joseph makes Mary go with him to Bethlehem. It’s not clear whether or not she would have been legally obligated to make the trip with him, but he has her do that.
She is probably in the last month of her pregnancy. She’s about to give birth any day.
It’s difficult to make those kinds of trips in our day. In that day, in bad weather, on difficult roads, the way they would have had to travel — that would be a nightmare.
They get to Bethlehem. They have nowhere to stay.
Again, I imagine what’s happening in their relationship — “Joseph, really? I know you’re not a planner, but no hotel reservations, not even an Airbnb, or phone call to family member, nothing? No place to stay?”
It gets worse. There is another character in the Christmas story.
Which brings us to the third group of difficult people at the birth of Jesus:
We talk about this a lot in our day — “I want to be around safe people. I go back home, and there’s someone unsafe sitting around the table.”
Now, whoever your unsafe person is, I doubt they’re anywhere near Herod the Great.
By the way, if you have a family member with a nickname that ends in “the Great,” you might have some ego issues going on.
Herod decides he doesn’t want another king in the world. He wants to be the only king.
So he decides he’s going to kill every infant two years old and younger in the whole region of Bethlehem where Mary and Joseph are.
Imagine living in that.
Here’s what happens:
An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.
Again, think about this — this is a real story. These are real people.
“Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” (Matthew 2:13)
They not only have all this stuff going on:
A scandal because people don’t understand what’s happening.
Mary is pregnant but they’re not married yet.
They have financial pressure.
They have to raise the Son of God, and Joseph is not the real father.
They have all of that pressure.
Now Herod, the king, is trying to kill their firstborn son who happens to be the Son of God who they’re supposed to protect.
And they’re going to have to leave.
Not just their house.
Not just their tribe.
Not just their family.
They have to leave their country, their culture, and their language, and flee to Egypt, which, by the way, is where the Israelites escaped from slavery.
They’re no more hospitable to Israelites now than they were when the Israelites were in slavery.
They have to live in a foreign country where people don’t want them around.
Immigration was not an easy thing in that day.
So what would their lives be like?
Some of you may know that there’s a stress index. It was created by a couple of psychologists over fifty years ago.
Well, there’s a guy named David Slagle who calculated how much stress Mary and Joseph would have been under.
If you’ve taken this test, you know it assigns points to stressful experiences in your life. And if you get up to 300 or more points, that’s like the high stress mark.
You’re 80 percent more likely to have a major health breakdown if you’re higher than 300 points.
Well, Slagle tried to assess this if Joseph and Mary have been able to take this stress inventory back in the ancient world.
Recently gotten married? Yep. That’s 50 points.
Lost a job? Joseph had to leave his job in Nazareth. 50 points.
Major financial change? Yep.
In-law troubles? Definitely.
Move? Yeah, they had to flee to Egypt.
Gain a new family member? Yep.
Outstanding achievement? Mary gave birth to the Son of God.
Major holiday? They invented Christmas.
Targeted for death by an egomaniac ruler? There’s not even a point total for that one.
Slagle figured they had more than 450 points on the stress index.
So when we look at the manger scene and Mary and Joseph look so peaceful —
“All is calm. All is bright.”
“O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
“Away in a Manger.”
I don’t think so.
Then there’s a fourth group of difficult people at the birth of Jesus:
People with value differences, culture differences, and personality differences.
There are these characters called the Magi.
The word magic is from the same word.
We don’t know a whole lot about where they’re from. The gospel of Matthew says they came from the east to Jerusalem — probably Persia, ancient Babylon, somewhere around there.
They were not Israelites. They did not worship Israel’s God.
They were engaged in astrology. They were following a star.
And astrology was forbidden in Israel.
So these Magi are different people.
In Israel, when Christians told the story of Christmas, they would do artistic portrayals on the walls of the different major characters.
In one early church in Bethlehem, they depicted the Magi on a wall in their church.
And they didn’t look like anyone from Israel.
This is how they’re depicted. They don’t dress like Israelites do:
They’re wearing trousers. Israelites didn’t.
They had belted tunics. Israelites didn’t wear that.
They have Phrygian caps. Israelites didn’t wear those.
In 614, an army from Persia (present-day Iran and Iraq) come to Palestine.
They destroy all kinds of churches… because the people are different.
But they get to this church in Bethlehem, where they see these characters in the church, and they literally don’t destroy the church because they say, “They look like us. They dress like us. So we won’t destroy them.”
That’s in 614.
Not much has changed in the past 1400 years.
You understand having a world that’s crying out for peace is not something we invented.
There are going to be different people around your table.
And the fifth group of difficult people at the birth of Jesus are:
This might be you. It might be me.
In the Christmas story, they’re the shepherds.
We talked about this last week. We don’t need to spend too much time with it today.
Shepherds were considered a despised occupation.
They were looked down on.
No one wanted shepherds around.
They were considered untrustworthy.
They couldn’t bear witness in a court of law.
If there were shepherds in the stable, Mary would be saying to Joseph, “You better check the baby. Don’t let them take the baby.”
Alright, the sixth group of difficult people at the birth of Jesus were:
At every table, in every family there will be someone who just blurts stuff out and makes everyone feel uncomfortable.
At the birth of Jesus there was a old man named Simeon. This group is usually old men.
When Joseph and Mary bring baby Jesus to the temple, Simeon says to Mary — now imagine you’re Mary, young mom, 14 year-old with your first born child, trying to keep it all together.
Simeon gives her this prophecy:
This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too. (Luke 2:34-35)
“Have a nice day. Good luck with the kid.”
Now she has to carry this around with her.
Alright, there’s a seventh group of difficult people, and that is:
Everyone has someone in their family who everyone else thinks, “Man, this person has just lost their marbles. They’re just out of their mind.”
In Jesus’ family, there was one person who everyone in the family would have thought about in that way.
It might surprise you. This is after Jesus grew up.
Again, these are real people. This is recorded in the New Testament.
Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” (Mark 3:20-21)
Do you get what they’re saying?
“Jesus has lost his mind. He needs someone to take custody of him, so we’re going to come do that.”
They actually literally try to take custody of Jesus against his will.
What will he do?
Again, this is in the New Testament.
Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”
Jesus doesn’t say, “Okay. Everyone hang on. I’m going to go talk to Mom.”
What he says is:
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.
Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35)
How do you think Mary felt about that?
You see, we talk about family values and so on. He’s radically redefining the family.
We have this idea that, “If I could just live in that group with Jesus — everything was easy for him. If I could just live with him everything would be easy.”
It’s not true. Because he lived in the real world with real difficult people.
Alright, in the time we have left I want you to think about 3 gifts that Jesus gave to difficult people in his life.
And I want you to consider giving these same gifts to the difficult people in your life this Christmas.
This is in the Christmas story in the gospel of John.
John talks about this from a heavenly perspective.
The Word [ Jesus ] became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
The first two gifts are right here. They’re part of the character of Jesus.
Jesus is full of grace.
And Jesus is full of truth.
This Christmas, try to extend grace.
Jesus did this all the time.
A woman was brought to Jesus. She was caught in the act of adultery.
The religious leaders want to condemn her and stone her.
Jesus says, “All right, go ahead — whoever is without sin, you throw a stone first.”
They all walk away.
Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. (John 8:10-11)
For the Son of Man came not to condemn the world but to save it.
Jesus is full of grace.
It doesn’t matter how much people have achieved or how well they’ve managed their life or relationships or finances. There is no-one in your life who doesn’t need grace.
And you can give it.
I was talking to a guy in his mid-50s about losing his mom. She died recently.
I asked, “What do you miss most about your mom?”
It was interesting. He said, “I miss the way she just unconditionally loved me. She always accepted me. If I messed up — whatever I did or didn’t do — I just knew she was in my corner. My dad could be a perfectionist, and I could feel like I had to live up to his expectations, but with my mom, she just loved me no matter what.”
People just never get too old for that. Grace is so powerful.
When I give the gift of grace, what I’m saying is, “I’m in no position to judge you.”
You may look at someone and say, “They don’t deserve it.”
Of course they don’t. Neither do I. Only God knows what anyone deserves.
In my blindness, I’ll sometimes think I do.
But I don’t know your background.
I don’t know your wounds.
I don’t know your hurts.
I don’t know your scars.
I don’t know what you grew up with.
I don’t know your genes.
We all have genetic predispositions — some that help us is profound ways, and some that we fight against in such deep ways.
We think we can judge people. We have no idea.
Some people are just grateful and joyful right out of the womb.
Some people whine and complain.
And we sometimes feel like we can judge them.
This is so interesting — I just read this in the last couple of weeks. It’s from a neuroscience journal.
When we think about what makes someone grateful — well there’s a variation of a particular gene — CD38, a mutation of that gene is associated with a heightened capacity for gratitude.
No one deserves this, but some of you have always been grateful your whole life long, and you wonder why — you’re a mutant. That’s why. You were just born that way.
And maybe you didn’t know that.
And right now you’re thinking, “Man, I’m so grateful I was born with one of those genes.”
Some of you complain all the time, and now you’re thinking, “Why didn’t I get one of those genes? That’s not fair.”
I’m in no position to judge anyone. Only God knows.
When you give grace, recognize that, and say, “I don’t know your whole story, but I want to love you. I want to accept you. I want to be in your corner. I want to be for you.”
That’s grace. Jesus was full of grace.
But not just grace. He was also full of truth.
Grace without truth won’t produce growth.
And truth can be hard sometimes.
A lot of times, someone will need truth. And in that moment, we may not know what to say.
I heard a story from a woman who was in line at a grocery store.
An associate at the store helped a very elderly, quite frail man to the front of the line so he wouldn’t have to wait.
And there was a young guy in back of the line who was not happy about it.
He was in a hurry, and he wanted everyone to know, so he said in a voice loud enough for everyone in the grocery store to hear, “I can’t believe he’s cutting in line. I guess that’s what happens when you get old. I guess when you’re old, the rules don’t apply to you. I guess that’s just the way it works.”
It was this tense moment when you just don’t know what to say.
So this women turned around and, in a moment of I think divine inspiration, just blew raspberries at him.
Sometimes truth doesn’t even need words. It’s just kind of a moment of prophetic inspiration.
What I often find is — I’m great at telling people truth in my imagination.
I’ll have conversations with someone in my mind, and I’m unbelievably articulate. I’ll say exactly what I want to say.
And they’ll be convicted, and they’ll say, “You’re right, I have to change. Thanks so much for telling me.” That will happen in my imagination.
But when I’m looking at someone face to face, it will feel awkward. And I won’t know what to say.
I can’t find the right words unless I’m angry. And if I’m angry, then I’ll say way too much, and I’ll probably do a whole lot more damage than good.
Paul says, “No, when Jesus is in your life —
Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. (Ephesians 4:15)
We’re going to grow, but we can’t do it without grace or love. And we can’t do it without truth.
So the first gift is grace. You can give grace this Christmas.
The second gift is truth.
There will be someone who’s hurting people, who talks too much, who interacts in a way that’s awkward, or they’re clingy and needy, or they’ve done things that are unfair, harmful, dishonest, damaging. Maybe they have a drinking problem.
Will anyone love them enough to speak the truth in love?
Alright, the third gift is
I give people grace enough to love them.
I give people truth enough so they can live in reality — so they can look in the mirror.
Then I recognize they’re not going to change overnight.
I get so impatient.
I can be frustrated with someone for so long.
I can feel like, because I talk to them one time, “Well, talking to them doesn’t work. I tried that once.”
I’m such an idiot sometimes.
These are patterns, just like I have these patterns that have been going on for days or weeks or months or years, and are deeply engrained in me.
And I sometimes think one semi-adequate conversation is supposed to change the other person?
And if it doesn’t, I just give up on them.
I don’t know about you, but I can be so impatient.
I went home to have lunch a couple weeks ago.
I was going to have a turkey sandwich but the only turkey we had was in the freezer.
So I put it in the microwave for about 60 seconds. I got it out and it was still frozen.
I thought, “It’s going to take like 15 minutes for this to defrost in the microwave. I don’t want to wait 15 minutes.”
I literally stood at the sink with a knife, trying to chipping off pieces of frozen turkey because I didn’t have the time to wait on the microwave.
Am I the only one who has ever done anything like that?
No one here is that crazy?
Then I have people in my life, and I just want to microwave them. Not literally — you understand.
Well, sometimes maybe.
I just want to be able to say one thing, have one conversation, say one word. “Why aren’t you different? Why don’t you change?” Well I guess that doesn’t work.
Jesus tells a great story one time about a man who planted a fig tree.
He goes to it. It’s been years. There are no figs.
He says to the gardener, “Cut it down. This tree is no good.”
The gardener says, “No, not yet. Let’s give it another year. I’ll dig around it. I’ll fertilize it. I’m working on this tree. Don’t cut it down yet.”
The gardener in the story, of course, is God. He’s still at work.
This Christmas think about someone in your life — it might be multiple somebodies — who need grace.
Maybe they don’t deserve it. I get it, I don’t deserve it either.
Give the gift of grace.
And give the gift of truth.
You might be scared to say it. I get it.
Speck the truth in love anyway.
And give the gift of time.
Don’t give up on people.
Because you’re not in charge of them. God is at work on that person, just like he’s at work on you and me.
All you can bring to the table is you. The only heart you can bring to the table is your heart.
The question is, “Will I bring for these difficult people I want to love — these imperfect, real people — will I give them the gifts of grace and truth and time?”
It’s kind of a funny thing, but when we’re in church and we’re talking about God, it’s a lot easier to have thoughts and feelings like — “Yeah, I want to be that kind of person.”
But when I get to the table, and that person in sitting in front of me, that’s when the thought comes, “I made my family disappear.”
This may be the most important thing I want you to hear — you’re not a grace, truth, and time factory.
You can be a conduit though if what you start with this Christmas is just letting God love you.
There’s this wonderful verse in Isaiah where God is talking to Israel — much like he would be talking to you and me right now.
They’re living in a difficult world, with not much peace, and a lot of stress.
And they don’t know if they’re loved.
See, I can’t really give love to someone else if I don’t know I have more than I need coming my way.
God says to them:
Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands. (Isaiah 49:15-16)
That’s what Jesus was doing.
He was born in a manger, and lived with disappointed, stressed out, unsafe, different and embarrassing people.
And he gave them grace. And he gave them truth. And he gave them time.
Then he went to a cross, and he stretched out his arms, and these big, cruel spikes were driven into his hands, and your name got engraved on his palm.
We’re not on our own. We come to him and ask him, “Would you be the gift giver and make me the conduit?”
I’m telling you — this could be a Christmas like you’ve never experienced.
I don’t know how they’ll respond. I don’t know what they’ll do. I’m just talking about you.
Alright, let me pray for you.