The First Christmas Was Bittersweet…


For many today and for many reasons, the Christmas holiday season is painful, is bittersweet, is NOT the most wonderful time of the year. For many this is a portion of the year to endure, not enjoy—we just want to get through it. For many, each calendar year can’t end soon enough and we want the new calendar year, with its false hopes of new results and different outcomes, to start as soon as possible.

I say the new calendar year offers false hopes because January 1st is truly just another day—same amount of hours, same weather, same you as the day before. It is not a magical day where your credit card debt goes down to zero and your physical health returns and your joy gets reset and your relationships get smooth again. The calendar itself offers false hope of new beginnings—on January 1st the only thing different about us is that we are one day older; but the LORD of the calendar offers

  • true hope in Him that does not disappoint (Romans),
  • true spiritual rebirth that is needed to enter heaven (John 3),
  • eternal life through faith in Jesus (John 3),
  • peace that passes all understanding,
  • the joy of the LORD which is our strength,
  • adoption into the family of God with the Almighty Himself as our Perfect and Loving Father (John 1).

But we don’t have to pretend that Christmas isn’t painful, we don’t have to mask our pain through fake smiles, we don’t have to endure this time of year through all of the earthly ways that we unsuccessfully try to cope—sugar, sports and shopping!

We can look to the Bible–and more to the God of the Bible–and rejoice that the first Christmas was full of pain as well. This is crucial that we notice & believe this. The Lord Jesus Christ’s incarnation—His arrival on earth as fully human (though without sin) AND as fully God—

was bittersweet,
was full of grief,
was not pretty but gritty,
was not a Norman Rockwell painting,
was both a blessing and a burden,
wasn’t full of comfort food but required courageous faith for those involved.

The Lord Jesus did not arrive on earth like Superman—bulletproof.

The Lord Jesus arrived on earth facing everything we face and more…not so He can be our ethical consultant to improve our behavior but so He can be our Great High Priest, our Savior, our King, Who truly understands what we go through and can deliver us, not only through our earthly trials but also deliver us from our spiritual sinfulness—an eternal deliverance!

Let’s look to the Bible to see some of the ways that the first Christmas was bittersweet…

The First Christmas Was Bittersweet: Mary’s Pain—the loss of her earthly reputation.

Luke 1:26-45

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

  • [What was the main benefit of Mary being highly favored? God’s presence with her. Not the stuff He gave her—presents—but Himself being Personally with her—presence.]

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

  • [Notice her question—it isn’t regarding how her future son will reign on the throne of David forever, it isn’t a theological question, and it’s not a question that doubts God or His faithfulness/ability to do what He promises; it’s a practical question that I believe shows that Mary already was understanding that this angel was bringing her news both of blessing and of burden. Mary asks HOW she is going to give birth when she is still a virgin. The angel didn’t say the son will be the son of Joseph, to whom Mary is engaged, but the son will be the Son of God. Mary is a smart young woman and is already starting to understand what this blessing will cost her.]

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

  • [Now we don’t know how much time occurred between the end of verse 37 and the beginning of verse 38. Might have been a second—might have been an hour. Just my opinion, just speculating, but I think it might have been longer than a second. Just maybe, Mary was considering and already beginning to realize in a small way how much it would cost her, how much it would hurt, to be blessed and honored like this by God. I think Mary already knew that many would not believe that it was the Holy Spirit Who would enable the Son of God to be conceived in her womb. I think Mary already knew that she would definitely lose her earthly reputation and that she would possibly lose her earthly life because of this amazing blessing of God.
  • Many of us would LOVE to meet an angel, but what if the angel brought news like this? This meeting with the angel was BITTERSWEET—filled with joy & pain.

This is real life—not made up in a studio but lived out in reality.
This is the first Christmas…a real Savior for real people…]

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

  • [And look at Mary’s response; after almost certainly considering what it would cost her to truly submit to God and HIS plan for her life, she doesn’t negotiate, she doesn’t complain, she doesn’t ask for more information, she certainly doesn’t say “thanks but no thanks; I just want to live my life and follow my dreams,” she doesn’t pat herself on the back and think that she has earned this honor. She submits, she obeys. She accepted from God not just the sweet but the bitter as well, all for the glory of the LORD and the spread of His fame.]

 39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.

  • [This is one of the reasons why I think Mary understood the pain she was about to go through—she doesn’t run to tell her parents the news, and she doesn’t keep the news to herself; she runs to tell her cousin Elizabeth, a godly woman. Now I pray for and work to have a relationship with my children so that they would run first to me & my wife with any kind of news, whether bitter, sweet or bittersweet. And Mary does eventually go to her parents. But I truly believe she went to Elizabeth for guidance, prayer, and encouragement to trust the Lord, not just as a one time decision (i.e. the conversation with the angel) but as a decision each day, each moment…]

41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

The First Christmas Was Bittersweet: Joseph’s Pain—the loss of his earthly reputation.

Matthew 1:18-25

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet [or was a righteous man and] did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

  • [Joseph almost certainly had doubts about how Mary became pregnant; but he didn’t think first of himself but of Mary. He didn’t want to drag her name and reputation through the mud. He didn’t post a tirade on the ancient social media site “FaceScroll.” He certainly didn’t want her to be stoned to death for allegedly sinning and breaking God’s command.]

20 But after he had considered this,

  • [Joseph was a godly man, a man of God’s Word, and so he first considered what he should do. He didn’t rush off in the heat of emotion and act on the first piece of information he got; he considered what to do next, he thought it through, almost certainly prayed about it because a man faithful to God’s law would do that.]

an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife

  • [Why did the angel say this to Joseph–do not be afraid? Because aligning himself with Mary moving forward would bring fear to Joseph, would bring social pain & whispering & gossip & loss of friendship & loss of reputation & loss of income to his carpentry business, would create a cloud that would follow him the rest of his life on earth (not to mention almost no one would be at the baby shower giving presents!). Joseph undoubtedly had been excited to be married to such a godly & humble woman—SWEET!—but to be married to her under these unique circumstances would also be excruciating—BITTERSWEET!],

because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus [Greek form of Joshua, which means “the LORD saves”], because he will save his people from their sins.”

  • [This dream almost certainly helped take Joseph’s thoughts off himself and onto the LORD; Joseph must have thought, “Wow. What’s happening here is so much bigger than me, bigger than my reputation, bigger than raising a family—it is from God and about God and it concerns not just earthly life but ETERNAL life, saving sinners from their sins!”]

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

  • [The LORD told about this nearly 700 years before through the prophet Isaiah. This wasn’t just the miracle of a baby coming into the world; this was THE miracle of God Himself coming to the world.
  • Many of us would LOVE to meet an angel, but what if the angel brought news like this? This meeting with the angel was BITTERSWEET—filled with joy & pain.

This is real life—not made up in a studio but lived out in reality.
This is the first Christmas…a real Savior for real people…]

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

  • [And look at Joseph’s response: like his future wife, Joseph obeyed the angel, he submitted his will to the will of the LORD, no matter the cost. No arguing, no complaining, certainly no disobedience. He accepted from God not just the sweet but the bitter as well, all for the glory of the LORD and the spread of His fame.]

The First Christmas Was Bittersweet—“Selfie” Pain: the loss of being in charge of our lives.

Matthew 2:1-8

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

  • [The Lord Jesus is not just a nice guy who set a good example for us who deserves us to remember Him and mimic Him. He is the King of the universe Who alone deserves our worship, our allegiance, our everything. He is not a genie in a bottle to make us happy; He is The King on the Throne to make us holy. He didn’t come to give us a few suggestions to make us better; He came to give His life to make us new, to make us alive. We don’t just pay Him our respect; He came to pay our ransom & set us free from sin & death & fear. As some have said, “Jesus didn’t come to earth to make bad people good, but to make dead people alive.” We do not elect Him, we cannot vote Him out of office—He is King and Monarch, ruling forever. We must understand this if we are to understand verse 3…]

 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.

  • [The earthly rulers—and pretty much everyone else!—were DISTURBED at the news that the long-promised Messiah had been born! They weren’t happy, they weren’t relieved, they were disturbed! WHY? Because it meant that they would no longer be in charge. They did not want to hand control over to anyone, even to The One chosen by God the Father. They had grown comfortable in their submission to and partnership with the pagan Roman culture—they didn’t want to rock the boat and miss out on the earthly scraps that they idolized, they wanted the trinkets of earth not the treasure of heaven.
  • This is the main reason why WE are disturbed at the Biblical Jesus, the untamable Lion of Judah—to receive the free gift of new life and forgiveness and adoption that He offers, we too must no longer be in charge, we too must hand over control of our lives to The One chosen by God the Father. By receiving Jesus as our Savior & King, we are simultaneously admitting that we are NOT our savior (but that we need one!), we are not our own king. The manger, cross and empty tomb are all connected, and by kneeling before Jesus as God we are agreeing with Him that we are so bad that He has to die in our place…but we are also agreeing that we are so loved that He was JOYFULLY WILLING to die in our place so we could live with Him in His place forever—heaven! When we receive the grace of Jesus we give to Him the title deed to our lives—ownership is changing. And by doing so it is a kind of death for us.

When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’” [Micah 5:2,4]

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

This is real life—not made up in a studio but lived out in reality.
This is the first Christmas—bittersweet…a real Savior for real people…]

The First Christmas Was Bittersweet—More Pain For Mary: her Son’s destiny is death.

Matthew 2:9-12

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

[Gold was a gift for a King;
Frankincense was a gift for God;
Myrrh was a gift for one who would die.

By giving the Lord Jesus the gift of myrrh, it was like giving a casket to a new parent at their child’s baby shower. Mary would not have missed this. College and a good job and a long earthly life and earthly success and an annual vacation to the Mediterranean Sea were not in her Son’s future: death was. From His birth Mary was already thinking about the Lord Jesus’ death—His march to the cross began in the manger.

This is real life—not made up in a studio but lived out in reality.
This is the first Christmas—bittersweet…a real Savior for real people…]

Luke 2:28-35:

28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: 29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”

33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

  • We can only imagine what Mary thought of this; oh how easy it would have been for her to tremble in fear and to run and hide from such a destiny, from such a burden. Her Son would be responsible for many people falling in Israel; many people would speak against her son; Mary’s own soul would be pierced. She would experience deep pain on a soul-level. Wow. And yet she didn’t shrink back from her allegiance to the LORD; she continued to submit herself to the LORD day after day, just as she did that first day when the angel visited her.

This is real life—not made up in a studio but lived out in reality.
This is the first Christmas—bittersweet…a real Savior for real people…]

The First Christmas Was Bittersweet—A Family’s Pain

Matthew 2:13-15

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “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.”

  • [Merry Christmas, Joseph! He wasn’t awakened early by toddler-angels eager for presents but by an angel warning him of a tyrant eager for murder. You’re gonna need more than coffee this morning, Joseph!]

 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” [Hosea 11:1]

  • [Living as refugees in a foreign country, newly married and new parents, with a tyrant trying to kill them, no family, no friends, not sure if they would ever see their homeland again, more questions than answers, a life of faith in the LORD that was getting much worse before it was getting any better, that was getting much harder before it was getting any easier. THAT was the first Christmas! Why oh why do we expect the Christmas’ after to be different? Why do we think the Christian life is supposed to be any different?

This is real life—not made up in a studio but lived out in reality.
This is the first Christmas—bittersweet…a real Savior for real people…]

The First Christmas Was Bittersweet—Society’s Pain: the loss of children

Matthew 2:16-18

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

 18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

  • [Because of the Lord Jesus’ birth, many children died because of a terrible sinner (Herod);
    because of the Lord Jesus’ death, many terrible sinners would be made alive & reborn as children of God

This is real life—not made up in a studio but lived out in reality.
This is the first Christmas—bittersweet…a real Savior for real people…]

The First Christmas Was Bittersweet—Jesus’ Pain: the loss of his earthly reputation.

Matthew 2:19-23

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

  • Why is this important, that Jesus was raised in Nazareth? Please read the verses below from John 1:

John 1:43-46: 43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come & see,” said Philip.

  • This was purposely done and planned by God the Father! By choosing for His Son to be raised in Nazareth, God the Father knew that His Son would lose His earthly reputation among many people—many would reject Him simply because of where He grew up.
  • Can you relate to the Lord Jesus, my friend? Are you encouraged that He can relate to YOU? Have you ever heard those words, “You’ll never amount to nothin’!”? Maybe because of your lack of finances, your lack of earthly looks, your lack of intelligence, your lack of ability, where you grew up, who your family is, etc. The Lord Jesus understands what it feels like for people to dismiss Him because of external characteristics—people did the same thing to Him.

This is real life—not made up in a studio but lived out in reality.
This is the first Christmas—bittersweet…a real Savior for real people…
A gritty Christmas for gritty humans like us.]

The First Christmas Was Bittersweet—Heaven’s Pain

As another pastor said so many years ago, one of our biggest troubles as Christians is that we are still so human-centered: even when we talk about God and the Bible we immediately talk in terms of what we get out of it, what are our needs, our gifts, how do we fit Bible study into our lives/schedules; how much (if any!) we will give of OUR finances, etc. Think back to the times you have prayed recently—didn’t it usually consist of YOUR requests and WHAT you need from God, how God can serve you?

But we must ask the LORD to help us be God-centered. And so we must consider how bittersweet and painful that first Christmas was to God—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Because of that first Christmas, there was no “hope” of Calvary (where Jesus was crucified) NOT happening…Jesus came to earth for one reason, He was born for one purpose: to brutally DIE…and that single mission was always before Him.

When you send out your children to school, the park, a friend’s house, etc., even though technically we know that “anything” could happen to them, we usually believe there is about a 99.9% chance that they will return home safely.

Well, when God the Father sent Jesus to earth, though Jesus would eventually return Home to heaven, He would return with deep scars/wounds having suffered unimaginable torture…and God the Father sent the Lord Jesus to earth KNOWING 100% that it would happen to Him! Wow. Absolutely staggering…the love of God is mind-blowing.

This is real life—not made up in a studio but lived out in reality.
This is the first Christmas—bittersweet…a real Savior for real people…
A gritty Christmas for gritty humans like us.

Closing Challenge

“A thousand times in history, a baby has become a king.
But only once has a king become a baby.” (Derric Johnson)

Loved ones, as painful as this Christmas might be for you, please be encouraged! Joy is a hardy flower–it doesn’t only bloom before & after the storm but IN THE STORM!

The shepherds—who were a low class of society, considered unclean, and had a dangerous and difficult and often monotonous job each day—even those shepherds had JOY in the midst of their trials. When the angel first appeared to them in Luke 2, they were TERRIFIED, but then they returned to that scene of terror with JOY! Why?

  • Luke 2:20: The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Oh return to Jesus, wandering Christian! Return to your first love Who loved you FIRST! Focus on praising the LORD for Who He is and what He has done, all of which is happening JUST as God said it would in the Bible!

And remember Mary and all the pain she knew she would experience? Out of her pain what did she do? She rejoiced! Not because she was looking forward to pain but because of the One Who would be with her before, during and after her pain! Listen to her worship the LORD!

  • Luke 1:46-50:46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation…”

She rejoiced in her pain because of what God had done for her and because of Who God is! She rejoiced over God her Savior, not her Suggestor! And His mercy extends even to you, even to me, no matter what good things we have failed to do and what terrible things we have done! His mercy EXTENDS, REACHES OUT, REACHES DOWN to lift us up to HIM! The person who gets pulled up out of a ditch/pit doesn’t pull themselves out, but they do take hold of the hand reached out to them—THAT is their only role in getting out of the ditch/pit/hole—GRIP! It is entirely the strength of the person OUT of the pit that pulls them out.

GRIP THE NAIL-SCARRED HAND OF KING JESUS extended to you, sinner loved by God! Don’t try to earn it, don’t try to completely understand it first, don’t try to wait for another way out, and DON’T keep trying to climb out yourself (it’s a grant to be received not a scholarship to be earned or a loan to be paid back—it’s a grant from heaven! RECEIVE JESUS as your Lord & Savior!)—GRIP the mercy of Jesus Christ extended to you, not just at that first Christmas 2k years ago but extended to us sinners every moment—GRIP THE SAVIOR by simple faith, even tiny/weak faith, and trust Him to deliver you from sin, judgment, and death…Stop fighting/wrestling with the idea of God simply tap-out in submission to King Jesus! Let Him be victorious OVER you so you can be victorious IN Him! Kneel before Him like the wise men did, not with gifts of gold but simply yourself—give Him both your sin and your dreams, your pride and your fears, your chains and the freedom you think you have, kneel before Him & cry out to Him for mercy & forgiveness & new life that lasts forever and He will lift you up and not be ashamed to call YOU His own! THAT is Christmas, loved ones…may we receive Him and rejoice in Him, until He brings us to heaven and the bitter is gone forever and all that is left is the sweet…


(Just saw an article that said, “Pure dark chocolate just might save your life.”
Receiving Jesus as your Savior & King–with all the bittersweetness–will definitely save your eternal life…