Bible Commentary

Sermon: Paul’s Xmas Letter

We’re celebrating that annual family tradition where I lie on the couch and watch cheesy Hallmark Christmas movies while Keri addresses and stamps Christmas cards to get in the mail. I’m embarrassed to admit how many of the Christmas letters people send never make it into my hands. (Keri reads them all and throws a few at me that I “need” to read.) We do have a wall that enshrines all of the pretty faces on all the fancy (and getting larger and fancier each year) cards!

What is your approach to Christmas cards and letters? Do you send a full letter or just cards? Have you switched over to e-cards or is that blasphemy? Do you read every word of every card? What’s your preferred style of letter? Color-coded fonts for each family member? Short and sweet acrostic using your last name or names of your children? Short and modest? Or long and braggy?

Consider the origins and interesting trivia behind Christmas cards. In 1843, Sir Henry Cole commissioned the first Christmas card in London, featuring artwork by John Callcott Horsley. The hand-colored card was lithographed on stiff, dark cardboard with the message: “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”

The Christmas card designed by Horsley provoked controversy in England because it pictured people holding glasses of wine. Putting alcohol and holy Christmas in one picture was deemed offensive. In 2001 it became world’s most expensive Christmas card when it was sold for $35,800 at auction. 

old-christmas-card-hirez

Did you know there are more than 3,000 greeting card publishers in America? Is it any surprise that only 15% of Christmas cards are purchased by men? Did you know over 2 billion Christmas cards are sent in the US each year. Slowly gaining ground are the 500 million e-cards are sent each year. 

An online publication once asked readers to send in their most outrageous Christmas letters. Here’s a sample:

We receive a Christmas letter from a childless, senior couple. It reads like a to-do list. Last year’s entries included Bernard changing the blades on the lawn mower and Alice attending a secretaries conference in Detroit. I kid you not! — Susan Wilston, Sugar Grove, Pa.

We got a letter last year from friends. The husband was writing the letter and he said: “Sue got a bone scan recently and she was told she has a spine of a 90 year old.” Sue is only 64 years old. I would kill him if he were my husband. — Sandy, Omaha, Neb.

One letter we received was an oddly anti-bragging letter. The senders went on about how they painted their garage in the colors of our alma mater, but did not mention their only child even once! — T. Hayes, Ill.

When I was a newlywed and not yet a parent, we received a card that said, “If you don’t have kids, you won’t understand paragraph 4, 6, 7 or 8.” — Ann D., Fredericksburg, Texas

Or, my personal favorite which is tempting (but too cruel) to try:

We used to have a dramatic reading every New Year’s Eve of the top runners for most outlandish Christmas letter. Then we would vote and all would be ceremoniously burned. One year, we wrote our own, only our kids were horrible, juvenile delinquents just to spice up the Christmas letter. I sometimes wonder how the wonderkids turned out in all those perfect families. Well, actually, I don’t wonder often.—Karen Read, Montgomery, Ala.

Despite the required sifting through the occasional cringeworthy letters filled with extensive boasting and monotonous detail, sending and receiving actual physical letters in the mail each year to loved ones expressing our love and best wishes is a great tradition indeed. 

A CHRISTMAS LETTER FROM APOSTLE PAUL

Speaking of letters, I wonder what the most famous letter writer of all time would make of this Christmas tradition? On this 2nd Sunday in Advent our New Testament lesson is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians 1:3-11. Here’s the text:

3-6 Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God. Each exclamation is a trigger to prayer. I find myself praying for you with a glad heart. I am so pleased that you have continued on in this with us, believing and proclaiming God’s Message, from the day you heard it right up to the present. There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears. 7-8 It’s not at all fanciful for me to think this way about you. My prayers and hopes have deep roots in reality. You have, after all, stuck with me all the way from the time I was thrown in jail, put on trial, and came out of it in one piece. All along you have experienced with me the most generous help from God. He knows how much I love and miss you these days. Sometimes I think I feel as strongly about you as Christ does! 9-11 So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush. Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God.

As we continue to receive and send out our Christmas cards and/or letters this season, I would like us to imagine these words being Paul’s Christmas letter to us. Let us compare and contrast Paul’s tone and message with the other Christmas cards and letters piling up on our counters. Paul can teach us a lot about what true love for friends and family entails—especially a love that should have Christ and the meaning of his birth at its center.

Paul's Xmas Card

I like Eugene Peterson’s introduction to this letter: “This is Paul’s happiest letter. And the happiness is infectious. Before we’ve read a dozen lines, we begin to feel the joy ourselves—the dance of words and the exclamations of delight have a way of getting inside us.” Wow! If only the Christmas letters we send and receive this year could could do that! 

Let’s take it verse by verse, using Peterson’s The Message version and feast on this banquet of love and affirmation. Let us receive this letter in two ways. First, let’s receive these words as a message from Christ to us! Second, let these words influence and reshape the tone and message of the letters we send out this year. 

3-6 Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God. Each exclamation is a trigger to prayer. I find myself praying for you with a glad heart. 

The first thing Paul’s Christmas letter does is assure loved ones that he gives thanks to God for them and lifts their well-being up to God in constant prayer. His affection is intensely personal in this opening of his letter. He expresses joy in verse 4; gratitude in verse 5; affection in verse 7, and deep longing for them all in verse 8. Despite being in a prison cell with execution possibly awaiting him, the resounding note of his letter is “joy”—a word repeated 14 times in this small letter.

In the midst of all our shopping lists, packed calendars, and gatherings to attend, do we even have room for people to “cross our minds” this season? When individuals do pop into our minds, what if our first instinct was to lift them up before God with thanksgiving? When a Christmas card arrives from a long lost cousin or former colleague, what if we immediately paused to offer a prayer up to God for them, to petition God for their growth in faith and protection from the Evil One—instead of our first thought being, “Did we send them a card this year?” 

Paul is writing from a prison cell, and so the ways he could show his love for his brothers and sisters in Philippi were severely limited. He couldn’t share a meal with them. He couldn’t bring piles of gifts. The great gift he could offer others was bringing them before the throne of grace in prayer, and interceding on their behalf. While praying for others may sometimes feel like a joyless obligation, for Paul it left his heart overflowing—kind of like the warm feeling and glow that accompanies a person after serving someone in need in Jesus’ name. Our family experienced a “glad heart” this week when we stood out in the cold ringing the Salvation Army Bell with our kids. 

Turning the tables, how would it feel for you to know that there are people right now in the world who break out into joyful prayers of thanksgiving and heartfelt intercession every time you cross their mind? Do you have somebody like that in your life? Can you become that someone for someone else this year? How many Christmas letters have you received that ended with, “We wish you God’s blessings on the New Year and please know that every time we think of you we lift you up in prayer”? 

For years now, Keri has hung all of our Christmas card photos on one wall that eventually reaches from floor to ceiling. Perhaps I will begin to say a quick prayer for the faces I glance up at as I pass by several dozen times a day. Perhaps you will do the same with yours. 

So, then, the first thing we gather from Paul’s Christmas letter is how he holds loved ones up in constant prayer as often as he remembers them. 

I am so pleased that you have continued on in this with us, believing and proclaiming God’s Message, from the day you heard it right up to the present. There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.

Now I know that Paul is a pastor and his letter is a pastoral letter and not an actual Christmas letter. Still, I think his burning desire to see God’s work accomplished in the lives of those he loves is a desire we can all emulate. This few verses show the “activity” Paul is zeroed in on in the lives of people to whom he is writing. 

Now, “activity” and starting and bringing various projects to their completion is and idea we Americans can wrap our heads around. This is our specialty, our cup-o-tea! We’re a culture overwhelmed and obsessed with non-stop activity. If we’re honest, many of our Christmas cards are precisely a detailed update on all of the various activities each member of our families has undertaken in the past 12 months. 

So, “Sally is a senior in high school and keeps busy as a three-sport athlete, starring in the school play, singing in the church choir, and in her spare attends youth group, knits blankets for the homeless, mentors at-risk kids, and dabbles in martial arts and ballet. Oh, and she made the honor roll and got a perfect score on her SATs.” 

What if instead of placing all the focus of our Christmas letter on all of our activities, we follow Paul’s example and celebrate the activity of God in our children’s lives? Instead of highlighting accomplishments in academics, athletics and the arts, we highlight growth in character and faith?  Look at how naturally we share the ups and downs in our career pursuits and family’s health in our Christmas letters, and yet how little we share about how God is stretching and growing us. 

How different this is from Paul’s focus: He sends out his Christmas letter, not to brag about his own achievements, but to celebrate and draw attention to the work God began in each of us, and to assure us that God will continue working in us to bring our faith to complete maturity!  In a more familiar translation: “I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (Phil 1:6 NLT).

As we read and send letters this year, may we be more focused on bragging about the work of Christ in our lives than listing all of our daily activities and accomplishments. Since Christmas letters often slip into a socially acceptable form of “boasting” let us also bear in mind Paul’s words later in this same letter. In fact, imagine reading this same testimony from a former boss or arrogant relative who for years has flaunted their worldly status and achievements. Paul says,

“The very credentials other people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant” (Phil 3:7-9 The Message).

This is the powerful testimony of a man whose wants his Christmas letter to draw attention first and foremost to the eternal activity and transforming work of Jesus Christ in his life. To borrow from John the Baptist’s Christmas letter writing motto: “I must decrease and Christ must increase” in my life’s script. 

So, secondly, Paul’s letter is consumed with putting on display the activity of God in our lives and not just our own.

Thirdly, this section of Paul’s so-called Christmas letter includes one of my favorite secrets to healthier relationships—one I share regularly with every couple I get to do premarital counseling with. We turn to the New Living Translation for this part:

7-8  So it is right that I should feel as I do about all of you, for you have a special place in my heart… God knows how much I love you and long for you with the tender compassion of Christ Jesus.

If you’re as human as me, then you will sometimes find yourselves running low on affection for certain people in your life. Some people are harder to love than others. The holidays often bring us into contact with estranged family relations, have us walking around on eggshells, patiently enduring awkward conversations and forced small talk. You may cringe with frustration or feel a sting on an emotional scar as you place the stamp on the card addressed to a person you cannot seem to find any goodwill toward. Paul discovered a great secret and powerful gift available to all Christians to help them love such people.

In verse 8 above, Paul says that the love he has for those receiving this letter is not his own human affection, drawn from the well of his own limited emotional tank. No, he literally says he “longs for all of them in the bowels of Christ Jesus.” Now we seem to be far from a standard Christmas letter! In the Greek language, the deepest seat of human emotions were not “the heart” (as in English) but rather “the bowels.” So, for example, when your English translation of the  Gospels say that “Jesus had compassion on someone” the Greek literally says, “Jesus’ bowels were moved in response to him.”  Jesus loved so deeply that it  quite literally gave him a “gut ache.” Back to Paul’s secret to a deeper love.

Paul experienced, believed and taught that those who are in Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit, can now draw on Christ’s own limitless well of grace and love in our interactions with others. Paul says he loves the Philippians brothers and sisters not with his own human affection but with the affection and compassion of Jesus himself! This is good news! For when your love-tank is running low, or you find only ill-feelings toward someone this Christmas, you can ask Christ to loan you some of his affection and passed it off on that person. 

A good way to begin tapping into this reality is through prayer: “Lord, I know you love this person and considered them worth dying for. But they have really hurt me and so I’m finding it difficult to love them right now. By your Spirit, will you help me extend to them your grace and love until I regain my own affection for them? Amen.” 

The fourth and final lesson to draw from Paul’s Christmas letter has to do with his deepest longing and wish for those to whom he writes. Christmas letters often end with some kind blessing, prayer and/or wishes for a happy and healthy year ahead. For many, this is the one place we mention our faith and invoke God—often with a Bible verse at the bottom of the letter or card. How different from Paul’s letter that oozes with Christ-centeredness from beginning to end. 

So, while we typically stop at wishing people happiness and health in the coming year, what wishes might Paul’s express for those receiving his Christmas letter?  Let’s look at the final 3 verses for today.

9-11 So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush. Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God. 

Paul longs (with the affection of Christ) for everyone to love Christ more fully and to love others like Christ more and more each day. Few would argue against such a sentiment. But Paul’s Christmas letter strikes another chord that is less politically correct but also very fitting in an annual letter that marks the passing of the years of our lives. 

That is, Paul reminds us that each person we send and receive a Christmas card from this year are moving steadily toward that Final day when we’ll stand face to face with our Creator and pass through the judgment. Life is fleeting indeed, and for some of the people on our mailing list, this may be their last Christmas. The “day of Christ” and his return is missed in the Message version above, so let’s look at another translation:

And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

The season of Advent is not only the celebration of Christ’s first coming into the world as a baby, but also a time of preparation for his second coming in judgment.  As our Old Testament lesson from Malachi 3:1-4 reminded us today, “The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.” This reality of our common mortality should add a hint of urgency to our annual message to loved ones; it certainly did for Paul.

The Christian scriptures, from start to finish, invite us to see our lives as caught up in a drama far larger than our kids’ school activities, our career changes, and wishes for personal health and happiness. Since we’ve been “rescued from the dominion of darkness and brought into the kingdom of the beloved Son” (Col. 1:13), shouldn’t our  Christmas letters at least hint at some of the ways we are trying to “Seek first His Kingdom and righteousness” (Matt 6:33). In Peterson’s colorful language, Paul would urge us all to spend the New Year pursuing “a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God.” 

Now I would love to read a full page, front and back, Christmas letter from a family describing in detail all the ways they are doing that—“making Jesus Christ attractive to all”—through stories about mission trips, testimonies of lives changed, and so on. Do all the details we read and write about in Christmas letters this year describe “a life Jesus will be proud of”? Or are we trying to make someone else proud? How many of the undertakings we read about aim at “making Jesus Christ attractive”? As we end our Christmas letter this year with a word of blessing or best wishes for the next year, are we mindful of the urgency of the gospel and the fleeting nature of life?

We received a Christmas letter today—just 3 or 4 lines long on a thin 1 inch x 8.5 slip of paper—tucked into a Christmas card with a quote from Billy Graham. The message was powerful and “to the point”, letting us know that the husband’s health has taken a turn for the worst and he may not make it through Christmas. “Please pray for us during this difficult time.” Billy Graham’s words add an appropriate Paul-like Christmas message that cuts to the heart of what really matters as we mark one more trip around the sun: 

“Only Christ can meet the deepest needs of our world and our hearts. Christ alone can bring lasting peace—peace with God, peace among men and nations, and peace within our hearts.” — Billy Graham

A final word for encouragement for those who are feeling a bit self-conscious now about the letter that just went in the mail on Friday. Paul would remind us all that the letter that matters most to God is not the annual one that goes out to a couple hundred people with a holiday stamp on the corner. No, Paul says, 

“Your very lives are a letter that anyone can read by just looking at you. Christ himself wrote it—not with ink, but with God’s living Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:1-3 MSG).

That’s the letter we get to send out each new day, through all seasons of the year, and all for the glory of God! Amen. 

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