Biblical Theology Briefings

'Who Are You Kissing This Christmas?' Preaching Psalm 2 for Unbelievers

Simon Flinders


The Unusual But Critical Responsibility Of Preaching At Christmas

I have two growing convictions about Christmas preaching. The first is that surprising people is a great idea. The second is that making people feel uncomfortable is also a great idea. Let me explain what I mean.

Where I live and minister, we have literally hundreds of people who come to church at Christmas - at least to one of the services we run - who don't come at any other time of the year. At other points in the year, we break our backs to invite people to come and hear the gospel preached, and if 20 unbelievers come we're delighted. But at Christmas, we would easily get ten times as many unbelievers as that in our church and we don't even have to raise a sweat in getting them there. It may be similar where you are. Either way, Christmas is a wonderful annual opportunity to preach Christ to many who don't know him. In that context, the last thing I want to do is to preach a predictable Christmas message predictably! It seems to me that it would be a waste if the many unbelievers who come through our doors at Christmas were simply to hear something pretty close to what they expected to hear. Instead, each Christmas, I want to try and arrest their attention. I certainly don't want to neglect the faithful believers and I'm looking for ways to engage them freshly with the good news too. But I'm especially interested in getting under the skin of the "once-a-year-visitor" to our church. So in that vein, I'm always looking to write a Christmas sermon that unravels people's expectations. Surprising them is a great idea because it hopefully gets their attention and wins me a hearing for the news they desperately need to learn and believe.

But I'm also reluctant to focus on the "warm and fuzzy" dimension of the Christmas message, especially if there's some danger that the "once-a-year-visitor" thinks that he or she is OK with God. So many of the unbelievers who come to church at Christmas believe they're Christians; they believe they'll be fine when they finally meet God face to face. Perhaps they even feel strengthened in that belief precisely because they've turned up at church! In reality, many of them are not OK with God and they won't be fine when they meet him face to face. So the worst thing I can possibly do is re-inforce the conviction they start with: the conviction of safety which actually endangers their soul more than anything else! Frankly, I don't want people who are so dangerously self-deceived to leave church at Christmas affirmed in their foolish smugness. I would much rather they left church wondering if things are really OK between them and God. I would much rather the gospel of truth left them feeling deeply unnerved. In that sense, I think making people feel uncomfortable is also a great idea.

Thus my two convictions about Christmas preaching. Moreover, rather than wavering in these convictions (clearly not designed to make me an appreciated and loved Christmas preacher!), I'm growing in them. In fact, I think I'm getting more and more edgy and blunt with each Christmas that goes by!

Christmas Songs With a Twist

Bearing those two convictions in mind, let me tell you what I've done for the past three years with my Christmas sermon. My aim has been to take a popular Christmas song or carol, and to begin the sermon by talking about the song/carol and what it's about. I've found that to be an easy, "light", and warm way to begin preaching (it follows the well-established educational principle of "moving from the known to the unknown"). But then I've made a connection (at times a little tenuous-but people are very forgiving at Christmas!) between the Christmas song and the text of Scripture I want to speak about. So I've moved from an exposition of a song into an exposition of the unnervingly true gospel of Jesus.

Three years ago I called the sermon "Silent Night" and began with the carol of that name, but then moved into a exposition of Exodus 11 (the plague on the Egyptian firstborn)- showing how that night in Egypt, in the Israelite quarter at least, was the original "silent night", because God promises his people that ‘among the Israelites not a dog will bark at any man or animal. Then you will know that the LORD makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel' (Exodus 11:7). I used this text to explain the inevitability of God's judgement but also the possibility of safety through blood. Thus I reminded people why Jesus came- to secure safety from God's wrath through his blood- for all who will trust him.

Two years ago I called the sermon "I'm Dreaming Of a White Christmas" and began with the popular Irving Berlin song by that name, but then moved into an exposition of Isaiah 1- and especially verse 18. I explained that long before Irving Berlin wrote his song, God's dreams were ‘filled with white' in a different way: he was longing for his people to be cleansed from their sin. Isaiah 1:18 puts it like this: ‘"Come now, let us reason together," says the LORD. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.' I used this text to remind people again of why Jesus came: to wash rebels, so that they might be clean before God; to bring forgiveness to all who will trust him.

As you can see, despite the fact that it may be unexpected, and despite the fact that it may make people feel uncomfortable, I want to preach at Christmas about the reality of sin and judgement, and I want people to understand Jesus' birth as the entry into the world of the only one who can rescue us. I want people to know Jesus as Saviour. But first they need to know what it is they must be saved from. It's this, I think, that keeps drawing me to the Old Testament for my Christmas sermons- it surprises people, and it hopefully makes them feel uncomfortable.

So that brings me to the sermon I preached last year- a Christmas sermon on Psalm 2.

Explanation of the Sermon

a) Sermon Structure

Whilst I didn't make any of this explicit in my Christmas sermon, I'm pretty persuaded that structurally, the Psalm falls into fairly neat sections:
vv.1-3 The Kings of the Earth
vv.4-6 The King of Heaven
vv.7-9 The Psalmist/"Anointed One" as King
vv.10-12a A Warning for the Kings of the Earth
v.12b Refuge for All in the "Anointed One"

b) Sermon Introduction

Last year I opened my Christmas Eve sermon by referring to the well-known Christmas song "I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus". But before I mentioned the song, I asked people the key question I wanted them to think about as I preached. This is how I began:

This Christmas Eve I want to ask you all a question. And it's probably not the kind of question you normally get asked on Christmas Eve: "Have you done all your shopping?"; "Where are you spending the day tomorrow?"; "How long do you have off work?" This isn't one of those standard Christmas Eve questions. And it's certainly not the kind of question you might expect when you come to church! This is my question: Who are you kissing this Christmas?

Now you might think that's a pretty left-field question, but I suspect you won't think I'm completely strange if you're familiar with a very popular Christmas song along these lines. I'm talking of course, about the song: "I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus". You'll be relieved to know I'm not going to sing it for you, but these are the lyrics:

‘I saw Mummy kissing Santa Claus underneath the mistletoe last night. She didn't see me creep down the stairs to have a peep; she thought that I was tucked up in my bedroom fast asleep. Then, I saw Mummy tickle Santa Claus underneath his beard so snowy white. Oh, what a laugh it would have been if Daddy had only seen Mummy kissing Santa Claus last night.'

I then tried to engage the congregation by talking about what a clever idea it is for a song, and what a wonderful picture of family warmth, and innocence, and fun it offers us. And I suggested that it's a song that causes us to ask ourselves who we will be snuggling up to this Christmas (acknowledging along the way that Christmas is a very sad time for many precisely because they don't have someone to snuggle up to). But then, I let the congregation in on where the sermon was headed. I told them how I wanted them to answer my question ("Who are you kissing this Christmas?"), and this was designed to pave the way for my exposition of Psalm 2:

Well, tonight I want to follow up my strange question with a suggestion. The person I want to suggest is someone who anyone can kiss, even if they've got no-one else. In fact, the person I'm suggesting is someone everyone should kiss this Christmas. And this is my suggestion. Kiss the Son of God. Kiss Jesus. Let me explain to you what I mean.

c) Sermon Exposition

I then introduced the Psalm and gave people some very concise background to the Psalm. I told them it was written by King David in roughly 1000 BC, and that he wrote it because he was wrestling with the question of why so many of the world's other kings were opposed to God and opposed to him (David).

I then read out the first three verses of the Psalm and explained the origin and significance of the word "anointed"- pointing out that it's this word which gives rise to the title ‘Messiah'.

But then I told them that David was convinced opposing God and opposing his King (his "Anointed One") was crazy. And I pointed to verses 4-6 as his explanation of why it's crazy. This is how I explained those verses:

You notice the way he refers to God ... as the ‘One enthroned in heaven'. It's a very clear reminder that while there may be kings on the earth who think they run the joint, there's actually a King in heaven- and he's the one who's really in charge. And that's why God laughs at the rulers of the earth when they oppose him. This isn't meant to be a harsh or callous picture of God. This is a picture of the power of God. You see, it's ridiculous that anyone on this earth would even dream of taking on God, no matter how powerful they are. It'd be like Tonga declaring war on the US, or the Poms thinking they could hang on to the Ashes (sorry- I couldn't resist!) . But it's that kind of mis-match when people take on God. God laughs at these kings because their opposition to him is laughable!

But the Psalm doesn't just tell us that God laughs. It also tells us that God gets angry. Verse 5 says that he rebukes them in his anger, and terrifies them in his wrath. But did you notice how he terrifies them? Verse 6: by installing his King; by crowning his anointed one, his Messiah. Now at first glance, that doesn't seem like a very angry or terrifying thing at all. But when we understand what this king will do, we start to grasp how terrifying it really is. Because God's Messiah will bring God's wrath. He is the one who will dispense God's justice against the rebellious kings of the earth. It will be God's king who will crush the rebellion.

I didn't want to get bogged down in the slightly more confusing section in verses 7-9, so I tried to deal with it with integrity, but very briefly. This was my attempt:

And that's what verses 7-9 are about. King David explains how God's King is also known as God's Son! And as God's Son, the Anointed One is entrusted with God's inheritance: one day all the nations of the earth will belong to him, and he will rule over them, bringing God's crushing victory against all his enemies.

So, after dealing fairly quickly with verses 7-9, I came to verses 10-12a. I read them again and then explained them this way:

It's actually a pretty straight-forward message. If God is really in charge and if he really is going to terrify his opponents in the end, his anointed one really is going to pour out his anger. If those things are true, then there's only one wise response: submit to him. If God is King, then you should allow him to rule you! And the way to do that is to serve him (verse 11), and to kiss his Son (verse 12). In ancient times, it was common to kiss a superior's hand as a sign of respect and submission. Perhaps that's what the Psalm is referring to. But whatever King David had in mind, there's no doubt that he's urging people to embrace God's King- God's Son. And to make that point he uses the language of a kiss.

And that's what smart rulers will do: they will recognise that even they are subject to rule. Smart kings will recognise that there is a King even over them. And they will embrace this King; they will kiss him, submit to him, allow him to rule them. And they will do that knowing that the alternative really is terrifying: facing the wrath of the all-powerful God.

d) Excursus: Possible Biblical Theological Trajectories

Now before I tell you what I said next, I want to raise what I think is the most interesting issue from a biblical theological perspective when it comes to preaching on Psalm 2. Because whenever I'm preaching on the Old Testament, I want to think hard about what the rest of the Bible makes of the passage I'm working with, and especially what the New Testament says about it. I'm interested in the biblical theological trajectories from the text in question into the gospel and the new covenant. The fascinating thing with Psalm 2 is that there are quite a few trajectories and connections. So because a good preacher won't burden his hearers with every conceivable cross-reference and New Testament allusion, he must make some choices.

In the New Testament, Psalm 2 certainly provides the back-drop to many passages. There's a case to be made, for example, that when God's voice is heard at Jesus' baptism and at the transfiguration - declaring him to be his Son - that he is not merely identifying Jesus as the second person of the Trinity, but as his anointed King (e.g. Matthew 3:17, 17:5; Mark 1:11, 9:7; Luke 3:22, 9:35). It certainly seems that Nathanael uses "Son of God" language in this way in John 1:49. Moreover, if Psalm 2 is important for understanding those texts, it will also be important background to texts such as Romans 1:4 and Hebrews 1:2.

Furthermore, it seems that Psalm 2 played a significant part in the thinking of the apostles as they came to terms with Christ's death and resurrection and the opposition they themselves experienced in the service of their risen King. In its context Acts 4:25-26 reminds us that the great struggle of Psalm 2 is both decisively won by Christ, and yet not concluded, and those who follow him and declare him as Messiah will continue to encounter the foolish raging and plotting that he did. Again, in its context, Acts 13:33 reminds us that God's risen Messiah lives even now to extend his rule and to offer forgiveness.

In particular I think Psalm 2 is critical for understanding the book of ‘Revelation'. Revelation 2:26-27 contains the fascinating suggestion that all who overcome will share with Christ in his rule over the nations. But in many other places in the book, the ultimate victory of Christ over his opponents is expounded in ways which echo the language and thought of Psalm 2 (e.g. Revelation 11:18, 12:5, 19:11-21).

As you can see, the trajectories from Psalm 2 into the New Testament form a rich tapestry. The overwhelming weight of reference, though, is to the way in which the Psalm is fulfilled in the person and enduring ministry of Jesus himself. As I came to write the conclusion to my Christmas sermon, I wanted people to feel this weight without making every connection explicit. In particular it seemed to me that the references in ‘Acts' were especially important for helping people to see Psalm 2 from the perspective of the New Testament. As Jesus' apostles utilised Psalm 2 in preaching the gospel, so too that was my aim.

e) Sermon Application

So after I had provided people with an explanation of the Psalm, this is how I began to explain its significance for us.

Now when David first wrote this Psalm about 3000 years ago he couldn't have known how prophetic his words would prove to be. But we can see it. Living as we do 3000 years later, we're able to see what this Psalm teaches us about one of David's descendants- Jesus. And the New Testament makes it clear to us that we can't fully understand this Psalm unless we recognise who Jesus is. He is God's Son. He is the ultimate Anointed One, the Messiah. He is God's King. And even more than king David, the words of this Psalm apply to him. And that's why this is a great Psalm to think about at Christmas.

Jesus is the one God has crowned as ultimate Ruler. Jesus is the one who will one day bring God's verdict on all people- we will be accountable to him. He is the one who will ultimately bring God's crushing victory against his enemies.

Yet, even so, there are still plenty of people in the world who oppose him. Even in his own day, the rulers of the time took a stand against Jesus- to the extent that they even killed him. And Jesus' disciples saw this as a direct fulfilment of this Psalm {Acts 4}. The crucifixion of Jesus was the ultimate expression of kings and rulers gathering together against the LORD and against his Anointed One. But, of course, because all opposition to God is laughable- Jesus wasn't beaten- not even by death. He rose again. And that's why the words of this Psalm are still terrifyingly true. Because the Bible makes it clear that the baby Jesus did grow up. And he died. And he rose again and ascended to heaven. And one day he will return as God's King, and all who stand against God will be terrified by the wrath Jesus will bring. And that, of course, makes the way we treat Jesus the critical issue in life.

As I hope you can see, I was eager not to leave the Psalm behind when I began to talk about it's fulfillment in Christ. I tried to explain Jesus' significance by using the language of the Psalm itself and the language of my previous exposition.

Finally, having shown my hearers why Psalm 2 is legitimately a "Christmas" sermon, I returned to the question I'd set up at the beginning of the sermon as the key question of the message. As I did so, though, I wanted to cut to the heart of the issue with those who presume they're Christian because they're "respectful" towards Jesus. I wanted to apply the Psalm especially to people who wouldn't consider themselves to be opponents of the Messiah but who probably are.

And that's why I'm asking you tonight who you'll be kissing this Christmas? And that's why I'm suggesting to you that no matter who else you kiss this Christmas, you mustn't fail to kiss Jesus, the babe in the manger who is God's eternal King.

And I don't mean just a polite hello kiss for Jesus; "nice to see you again Jesus"; "it's great having you around at this time of year Jesus". That's not what I'm talking about. When I urge you to kiss Jesus, I'm meaning what the Psalm means: I'm urging you to embrace him, to give your life to serving him. I'm urging you to let him rule you!

You see, when Jesus does return to bring God's verdict to the world, it won't just be the really nasty people who will be considered God's enemies. It won't just be the people who hammered the nails into Jesus' hands. It won't just be the terrorists and murderers of this world. God's enemies will be anyone who hasn't embraced his Son, anyone who has refused to let him rule them, anyone who has kept Jesus at arm's length. And there are hundreds of ways people do that; even people who would consider themselves fine upstanding citizens!

Some people do keep Jesus at arm's length by committing murders and doing other such evil things. And some people keep Jesus at arm's length by saying they just don't believe in God. But other people keep Jesus at arm's length through a veneer of religion and a good dose of charity. People keep Jesus at arm's length by blaming God for all the suffering in the world. Some people keep Jesus at arm's length by presuming that all roads ultimately lead to heaven in the end. Lots of people keep Jesus at arm's length by simply being busy, and working hard, and devoting themselves to their families.

Then I really wanted to be as blunt with people as I possibly could. I wanted people to be in no doubt about what the Psalm was saying- to everyone who keeps Jesus ‘at arm's length':

And if all you knew about Jesus is that he was a cute and cuddly baby in a manger two thousand years ago, then it's easy to see how you could make that mistake. Because babies don't get angry with you. Babies don't pour out the terrifying wrath of God. But that's why I want you to read this Psalm tonight and confront this question; because you need to know that Jesus grew up. You need to know that Jesus is alive. And you need to know that everything Psalm 2 says about him is true.

And so I want to plead with you tonight, to take just a few minutes to stop this Christmas Eve; to stop giving your opinions, and to stop being distracted, and to stop trusting in your well-polished life; and to listen to what God says, to listen to the question he asks you.

This strange question I'm asking you tonight is actually the biggest question you'll be asked this Christmas. Are you kissing Jesus? Have you embraced him? Are you letting him rule you? Because if you're not, then you are in very real danger.

Finally, my intention was to come back to the one sentence of the Psalm that I'd deliberately left out of my exposition earlier - verse 12b. I chose to do it this way because I thought people needed to hear the "bad news" (of the Son's anger) before they could properly understand the "good news" (of the Son's offer of salvation). I wanted them to feel the weight of "wrath" before they were given an opportunity to delight in "refuge". This is what I said as I began to conclude:

But I can hear you saying: "Hang on a minute! This isn't a very cheery Christmas sermon! Wasn't the birth of Jesus a cause for great joy? Didn't his arrival signal God's gift of peace and salvation entering the world?" And of course, the answer is "Yes! Absolutely!". But the salvation he brings is salvation from something. And that's why the very last sentence of Psalm 2 is so important: ‘Blessed are all who take refuge in him'.

What we find here is a deep, and almost paradoxical truth. There is no refuge from him except that which is in him. There is no safety from the Son's anger except by being safe in him. There is no protection from his wrath unless he himself protects you. And that of course is what his death and resurrection were all about. And that's why Christmas is a time for great rejoicing. Because Christmas isn't about the arrival of a cute baby, but the arrival of a refuge, a safe place; a sure and certain refuge from the anger of God that this baby himself will one day bring.

To end the sermon, I wanted to address believers and unbelievers separately, and then to finish with the words of the Psalm itself:

And of course, many of you here tonight know that joy in a deeply personal way. And I hope you will know that joy freshly this Christmas- that it won't wash over you, but that you'll remember again what a breathtaking privilege it is to kiss Jesus, to embrace him, to let him rule you, to take refuge in him.

And if you're here tonight but you know that you've really been keeping Jesus at arm's length, then let me urge you this Christmas not to simply be aware of Jesus, or even to admire Jesus, but to recognise you need Jesus - desperately! You need the refuge he alone can provide. You need him so much that you should embrace him as King, you should serve him, you should let him rule you. You should be kissing him this Christmas; and all the days of your life.

‘Kiss the Son, lest he be angry . . . Blessed are all who take refuge in him.'

Conclusion

The sentence from my sermon that best sums up for me what Psalm 2 is about is this: ‘There is no refuge from him except that which is in him.' I think that really is a very profound truth about our Lord Jesus Christ which Psalm 2 helps us to see and understand in a unique way. For that reason, I think the Psalm is a great text for Christmas. Well preached, it will catch people by surprise, and it will make people feel uncomfortable. But at the same time it offers to people the breath-taking news of the gospel of Jesus in a nut-shell.

For that reason, it is, of course, a great passage for a sermon any time, and it's a great passage for our constant reflection personally. How wonderful it is at Christmas, and all year round, to know the one who humbled himself, and became a man, and who died, that we might know how blessed it really is to find refuge in him.

Recommended Reading

If you're after good commentaries on the Psalms, I continue to find (amongst lots of good options) Derek Kidner's brief commentary (Tyndale series) and James L. Mays one-volume commentary (Interpretation series) most helpful. Both these commentators (unlike some) are interested in and eager to point readers to the New Testament trajectories from the Psalms.

A Meditation on Psalm 2

The question ‘why' is a good one
When faced with the stupidity
Of fools opposing God;
Both then and now.

If it was bewildering
Thousands of years ago,
It is all the more bewildering now
Since the songster
Has found his piece
Concluded, mastered and played
By the Son of whom he spoke.

And now the King reigns -
The King whose Father left him everything,
The King who sits as judge and executioner,
The King who graciously allows the wise ones
To kiss his royal hand.

And yet the sounds of earth
Can still be heard -
The sinister whispers
And the arrogant shouts.
And from the throne-room above
Another sound is heard -
Surprising at first
But delightful to my ear -
Laughter.

© Simon Flinders 1996

Endnotes:

My apologies to people who may not understand this allusion. It's a reference to the great game of cricket which the most advanced nations in the world play! The Ashes is a contest for supremacy between two great cricketing rivals: Australia and England. As a one-eyed supporter of the Australian cricket team, I was at this point in the sermon, endearing myself to most of my hearers (English listeners excepting) by prophesying the defeat of the English in that summer's 5 test match series. Just in case you're interested, Australia went on to win the series 5-0!

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