Monday, December 01, 2014

What's a Christian to Do with Christmas?

This is the transcript of a sermon I preached two years ago on Christians celebrating Christmas. If you'd like to listen to the audio, you can find it here!

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What’s a Christian to Do with Christmas?

Reading: Luke 2:8-20

This morning’s sermon is entitled: “What’s a Christian to Do with Christmas?” In it, I would like to address three questions: first, what’s a Christian to think about holidays? Second, should Christians even celebrate Christmas? Third, how should Christians celebrate Christmas?

Socrates once said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” By saying this he drew attention to one of the fundamental differences between human beings and animals: human beings have the sacred ability to think about and reflect upon themselves and their world, enabling them to consider and discover the meaning of life. Socrates understood that a human life that is lived without ever asking the important questions of life – Why am I here? Where am I going? What is my purpose? – is a life that is lived no different than the animals, and is therefore a tragic waste of humanity. To this agrees the haunting words of the Psalmist: “Man that is in honor, and understands not, is like the beasts that perish.” (Ps. 49:20)

I recently read a quote from Doug Wilson, pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, that modifies Socrates’ saying and strikes a similar chord: “The unexamined holiday is not worth celebrating.” I’d like to pick up on this thought this morning. Just as living a human life without examining its meaning is a tragic waste of humanity, so celebrating a holiday without examining its meaning is a tragic waste of holiday. To participate in a holiday is to participate in something intensely human. Human beings are the only creatures who celebrate holidays. Have you ever seen a monkey celebrating a birthday, or a family of dolphins gathered together to celebrate Thanksgiving? Could you imagine an ant hill putting on a party in commemoration of its initial founding? No! People, not animals, do these things, because people, not animals, reflect upon life and life’s sacred meaning. The very word “holiday” contains a clue: holidays are “holy” days that we set aside from all the others in order to remember and celebrate the sanctities of life. There is meaning in the birth of a child. There is meaning in the food we eat and the family and friends we share it with. There is meaning in the founding of a city. Humans, unlike animals, recognize it. Holidays are part of the supreme privilege of being human. In a world without God there is nothing holy and there is no meaning, but holidays remain stark evidences that we live in a world inextricably connected to God. And since we human beings are what we are because we are made in the image of God, it shouldn’t surprise us that when we turn to the Bible we immediately discover that God is the author of holidays.

In the opening pages of the book of Genesis God created the world’s first holiday, the Sabbath, by setting apart and blessing the seventh day to be a day of rest in remembrance of God’s rest after finishing creation. The very first instruction God gave to the nation of Israel upon their leaving Egypt was to celebrate the Passover festival year by year so that they may remember their bitter bondage in Egypt, and God’s miraculous redemption from that bondage in fulfillment of His covenant. The Law of Moses contained a combination of nine holidays, holy-weeks, and holy-years: New Year, New Moon, Passover, Pentecost, the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Tabernacles, the weekly Sabbath, the Sabbath year, and the Year of Jubilee. Clearly God is into holidays! Each one of these holidays points to something that God has done, God is doing, or that God is going to do. God wants His people to be people of history, people of remembrance, people of meaning. God wants us to be fully in tune with our world, to see ourselves in the flow of what He is doing in history, not floating adrift aimlessly in a world of meaningless monotony. God gave us holidays to help us understand our world, and our place in it.

Therefore God did not want Israel to celebrate His holidays mindlessly. In fact, He hated that. An unexamined holiday actually turns into something odious to God and even harmful to man, diverting attention from truth to empty tradition – empty tradition that can obscure truth and make it void. God’s instructions regarding holidays are repeated and emphatic: teach your children why we do them. “And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, What mean ye by this service? That ye shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when He smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses.” (Ex. 12:26-27) Such verses could be quoted by the dozen. It is the parent’s responsibility to teach their children the meaning of the holidays. They are to help their family understand what God has done in history, what God is doing, and what God will do, and how it relates to them, so that they may know their place in the God’s world.

Nor are holidays to be mere commemorations; mere history lessons, as one would find in a school textbook: two-dimensional, removed and distant. They are meant to do much more than that. Holidays bring the events remembered into the present, for us to see them, taste them, feel them and touch them – in a sense, to replay them, like an instant-replay at a sporting event. Instant-replays are not repetitions of what happened: Michael Jordan isn’t actually slamming the ball into the net all over again, yet we are seeing it again, bringing it out of mere memories into our senses and re-living the action. Holidays are like that, except that you are not just a passive observer, but a participant. Nothing is actually repeated, yet you are re-living the drama through sights, smells, tastes and sounds. What is being remembered has come to you in a form that you can participate in, rather than just read about. This is why we say, “What are you going to do this holiday? What do you usually do?” For Remembrance Day in Canada, we wear poppies on our lapels in honor of the soldiers have died to give us the country we have today. For Thanksgiving, people prepare enormous, delicious meals and invite family and friends over to partake in the feast. For Birthdays, we make birthday cakes and put the correct amount of candles on the top corresponding to the age of the birthday boy or girl, and give gifts. We are not just remembering with our minds, nor reading a fact in a book. We are setting aside a time to do something, to celebrate or mourn, to remember whatever it is we are remembering through activity and form. That is a holiday.

This helps us understand that the past is not something unrelated to us (to be remembered begrudgingly like some fact on history test) but is something that we are involved in – that has everything to do with us – something that is with us forever. The past is always with us; we just need to recognize it. When the Israelites celebrated the Passover many years after the actually Exodus event, they never said, “God delivered them from Egypt”, but “God delivered us from Egypt.” The parents would teach their children: “We were slaves in Egypt four hundred years, and God brought us out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” (Deut. 6:21) God instructed them to speak like this. He wanted them to be involved and engaged. God wants us to be involved and engaged. He wants us to remember what He has done and how it pertains to us. He doesn’t want us to go through the motions mindlessly, but to participate with understanding. This is God’s desire for holidays.

Consider how it is when we celebrate Communion. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins is brought before us, not only in words, but in tangible form. His sacrifice is not repeated, for He died to put away sins once for all time. It is remembrance, but it is something we do in remembrance. We are participating in an active instant-replay, a re-living of the past, and we are exhorted to do so again and again, reminding us constantly that the past is always present with us. When we take Communion we remember in sacred form that Jesus died for our sins, and that His death so long ago is relevant and efficient for our sins today. As we eat the bread and drink the wine we are reminded of the reality of Christ’s finished work on the cross, and the necessity of us partaking of it by faith alone. Jesus Himself instituted this holy supper, not because it saves us, but because it is a helpful tool in remembering and understanding the sacrifice of Him who does save us. “Do this in remembrance of Me.” (Luke 22:19)

So what about Christmas? What’s a Christian to do with Christmas?

One of the first questions we need to ask is whether Christmas is even a holiday we Christians should celebrate? What is the basis for it? Isn’t it actually a pagan holiday?

The answer to the last question is: no, Christmas is not a pagan holiday. The Christmas holiday was instituted by the Church nearly 1700 years ago, during the 4th century – the century that witnessed the overturning of paganism in the Roman Empire by Christianity. Once the Christian Church gained its freedom to worship without harassment it officially instituted the Christmas holiday in order for Christians to set that day aside to remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.

But why December 25? Was Jesus even born on that day? And isn’t that the date of the pagan Winter Solstice?

The fact is, there is simply no way of knowing the precise date of Jesus’ birth, because the Bible doesn’t give us enough information to perfectly identify it. So the Church just had to choose a date. It was in keeping with the overthrow of paganism by Christianity that the Church chose December 25, which is indeed the date of the Winter Solstice. There is nothing at all pagan about the Winter Solstice. Solstice simply means “sun-stand” in Latin, and it signifies the time of year when the sun is farthest away from the equator. There is a Summer Solstice (when the sun is the farthest north of the equator) and a Winter Solstice (when the Sun is farthest south of the equator). On these days the sun stops receding away from the equator on its ecliptic course, and turns back again. These days mark the darkest days of the year. For this reason, the pagans would hold celebrations on these days, celebrating the symbolic re-birth of the sun. To the pagans, the Solstice was the sun’s birthday! The Christians, in choosing a day to celebrate the birth of Christ, fittingly chose December 25, displacing the pagan celebration of the birth of the sun with the Christian celebration of the birth of the Son. In the words of Church historian Albert Henry Newman, “There was thought to be a peculiar appropriateness in identifying the birthday of the Sun of Righteousness with that of the physical sun.” So far from being a pagan-ridden holiday, Christmas is actually a pagan-ridding holiday. Christians should therefore celebrate Christmas with a sense of triumph!

We are today, however, seeing Christmas rapidly become pagan once again. This is the effect of celebrating the holiday unexamined. What is now most prominent is no longer the advent of Jesus, nor even the advent of the sun, but Santa Claus, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, and Frosty the snowman. Does it get any more arbitrary than that? I know that these things are cute and innocent, and I have no objection to them intrinsically; but when the cute and the innocent begin to displace and eclipse the important and substantial, we have a problem. If you would like to see the epitome of insubstantiality, go watch a Hollywood Christmas movie this year. You will hear all about “the Spirit of Christmas” and the magic of being nice to each other, without any trace of or reference to God, Christ, the sun, or any real meaning at all. Friends, if Christmas has become like this in your home, where Rudolph’s night navigation is the only thing that goes down in history, you might as well not celebrate Christmas at all. You don’t need a holiday to be nice to your neighbor and kids. If there’s nothing more to it than that, then please do us all a favor and stop celebrating Christmas. The unexamined holiday is not worth celebrating. Actually, it’s obnoxious to both God and His image bearers.

Of course, nobody has to celebrate Christmas at all. It’s not written down in God’s Law, and you won’t be sent to hell for it if you don’t. So why celebrate Christmas then? It is my hope that you will see that celebrating Christmas is one of those good things worthy to be done heartily by all Christians.

In the first place, it is permissible to celebrate Christmas. God has given men great freedom in making holidays besides His own. We see man-made holidays throughout the Bible: birthdays are celebrated, Purim is instituted, the Lord’s Day is observed. All of these were instituted by men, and there is nothing inherently wrong when men do things (actually, one might say inherently good). God nowhere criticizes men for making holidays to celebrate the significant things of life. God creates holidays, therefore it must be good to create holidays (provided they are meaningful and helpful). Holiday-making is in our DNA, so to speak, since we are created in the image of God. If you have a problem with the human, non-Scriptural origin of Christmas, perhaps you should not celebrate your birthday.

In the second place, it is fitting to celebrate Christmas. There never has been, nor ever will be, another birthday for God Almighty. The Almighty God clothed Himself in flesh and was born into our world through a virgin. There are few things more remarkable than that! The Incarnation stands aloft in its sublimity. We celebrate men’s birthdays… why should we not celebrate God’s? We institute holidays for significant and meaningful happenings… is there not a more significant and meaningful happening than this? I would think that if you don’t celebrate Christmas you are rather numb. The words of the prodigal’s father are fitting here: “It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad.” (Luke 15:32)

In the third place, it is healthy to celebrate Christmas. It is good for mankind to remember and celebrate the birth of the Savior. One of the main reasons why we humans make holidays is because we recognize their exceedingly precious value in helping people remember. What if the United States never celebrated Independence Day, or your family never celebrated your birthday? There would be a great danger to forget them, and/or to not make much of them. But by holidays we are continuously confronted and reminded of those things which we need to remember. You may not even have noticed, but year after year you are ever faced with those events in history that your society deems important; and it works, because you will remember them. Thus holidays are powerful tools to help us, and God Himself knew this. This is why He gave Israel holidays, and why Jesus gave the Church the Lord’s Supper.

In the fourth and last place, it is a blessing to celebrate Christmas. Through Christmas we are blessed with the joy and peace that celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ brings. The Christmas event is full of love and hope which has ever enriched those corners of the world that have recalled it. It is not a mystery why people feel closer to each other at Christmas time: the message of Christmas is “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men”; it is a proclamation of just how deeply God loves this dark and sinful world. Sadly, this spirit of Christmas is already fading away from our society as the message of Christmas is being replaced by Santa; but it need not among Christians. All who have truly celebrated Christmas have been so blessed, and would want others to enjoy the same. Christmas is therefore not something to be despised, but embraced, and reveled in to the fullest. Just like the shepherds in the first century, the news of the advent of the Messiah is one of unspeakable joy, wonder and motivation. They couldn’t keep silent about it! And neither will we when we catch a glimpse of the glory that they saw. Yes, it is a blessing to celebrate Christmas! It is treasure-trove of love, joy, peace and evangelistic motivation. Is it any wonder that our Christmas hymns are so full of glory and power?

Hark the herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King
Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled
Joyful all ye nations rise, Join the triumph of the skies
With angelic hosts proclaim, Christ is born in Bethlehem!

Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, Born this happy morning
Jesus, to Thee be all glory given
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing
O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!

Shepherds, why this Jubilee? Why your joyous strains prolong?
Say what may the tidings be, which inspire your heavenly song?
Gloria In Excelsis Deo!

Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere!

Lastly, I would like to examine the question: how should Christians celebrate Christmas? How do we keep our celebration free from being mindless and pagan? How do we participate in, get involved in, and identify with, this piece of God’s history? I hope to make this section thoroughly practical.

First, do not go through the Christmas season without formally including the Christmas story. I emphasize formally. Parties, food, fun Christmas movies, decorating and gift giving… all of these are wonderful things and should be encouraged at Christmas time, but these alone are insufficient to celebrate Christmas. It is absolutely essential that parents teach their children why all of these things are being done at this time of year, so that children (and parents) don’t end up mindlessly celebrating Christmas. With all Biblical holidays, God wanted the children of Israel to observe them with understanding, and to teach their children their meanings. So it must be with Christmas. And it is not only the children who need the teaching and reminding, but the parents as well. We are all prone to just do things mindlessly because “that’s just what we are supposed to do”. We can break out of this temptation by formally setting aside a time to attend to the Christmas story. By formally, I mean the deliberate dedication of time given to the meaning of Christmas. Seeing a picture of the nativity on a wall, or listening to a song on the radio about Jesus’ birth while you’re driving to the store is not formal. Those things may serve to keep the meaning of Christmas in the background throughout your holiday, but God wants Christ to be in the forefront. I would urge families to orient their holiday around a formal telling of the story. Let everything else – the food, the parties, the gifts – be the decorative frame around the central picture of Christ.

In the home I grew up in, my father would read us the Christmas story from the Bible on Christmas Eve night, and then as a family we would discuss it and have a time of prayer thanking God for giving His Son to us. Sometimes we would also sing some carols. But we would always finish that time by lighting an “angel chime”: the heat from the candles would turn two metal angels who would chime against two bells. This reminded us of the light coming into the world, and the angels proclaiming His birth. Once this formal time was over, we’d eat goodies and watch “A Christmas Carol”. For me, growing up, this was the heart of Christmas, and to this day it is still my favorite part of the holiday. We would eat lots of good food, watch fun movies, go to parties, and give gifts to each other on Christmas Day, but that Christmas Eve night was the centerpiece of Christmas for us. It helped keep everything else in perspective.

It doesn’t have to be reading the story like we did: it could be watching a movie on the Christmas story, going to a church service, singing carols thoughtfully... but it should be a formal tradition that serves as the indispensible centerpiece of your holiday. Attention given to the meaning of Christmas should not be random but fixed. It should not be second-place but priority. Christ is the reason why we are celebrating Christmas, and we are celebrating it for the purpose of remembering Him.

Second, party with gusto! This is the logical conclusion of making Christ – the meaning of Christmas – the focus of Christmas. One might think that if you make the meaning of Christmas your focus, and not the parties and the food, then you won’t have as much fun. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you get yourself involved and engaged in the work of God in history, seeing how it relates to you rather than just acknowledging the story with a nod as if it were some irrelevant answer on a school quiz, then you will actually have a reason to celebrate – and celebrate big! Consider that God sent His only begotten Son into the world so that you can live through Him... Consider the depths of the love of Christ in desiring to be born in a cold and stinking stable, so that He might come and rescue you from your sins! Consider that this babe was born for the sole purpose that you might have eternal life! If people need a reason to have joy, then there is no greater reason than this. Christians hold exclusive rights to partying the hardest! Christians, above all people, can rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory, since life has such glorious meaning for them.

What does this look like? Enjoy your food! Party hard and have fun with your friends and family! Sing gustily! Laugh heartily! Soak it all up. “It is not godliness to not enjoy a piece of fudge or a glass of eggnog.” (Doug Wilson) Christmas isn’t about penance, but the gospel. Some people think it is always more pious to eat a scrap of bread and drink water, and to save your money for the poor (like the disciples and the broken alabaster box). No! There’s a time for everything, and sometimes it is not more pious to drink water than to drink wine. This is a time of glad tidings of great joy for all people! Let the message of Christ permeate and influence all that you do, so that you do them well! Let your neighbors see the joy that you have at Christmas time: a joy that has no comparison because it’s not based upon any temporal thing, but rather infuses and gives color to all things. Therefore to properly celebrate Christmas, you should party with gusto!

Third, the Christmas season should be celebrated in peace. Once again, this is only possible when you make the message of Christmas the main thing. How easy it is to lose your peace when running around with what seems like your head cut off! The busyness and pressures of the holiday can easily take your mind off of Christ, and make you irritable and nasty to be around. Relationship problems can flare up, and you seldom “sleep in heavenly peace.” But when you remember what Christmas is really all about, you’ll realize that it’s about God making peace where there formerly was no peace. “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” Peacemaking and reconciliation is the essence of Christmas – indeed, they are the essence of all things Christian. Through Jesus Christ we have peace with God, for He came into the world for this express purpose: to deal with our sin problem completely at the cross. By His one sacrifice our unrighteousness is changed to righteousness and we stand blamelessly before Him, in the full radiance of His unceasing pleasure, not because of any good works that we did to merit it, but because of His amazing grace. The enmity between you and God disappears in the blood of Christ, and no longer needs to be a worry! It is replaced with matchless delight! What glorious rest this is! This is the peace of Christmas that Jesus brings. And He brings peace between man and man also, because a true glance at this peace likewise dissolves any animosity between you and your fellow human being. Why should you be angry with him when God has not been angry with you? Why should you be angry with him whom God is not angry with? It is only through the blood of Christ that we can live our lives in peace with God and with man.

So let your holiday be marked by peace. Don’t bicker, strive and yell. Engage the truth, and let the truth engage you. When you do this, the peace which Christ brought will create the appropriate atmosphere in your home befitting a Christmas celebration.

Fourth and lastly, celebrate Christmas by giving. Of course, that seems obvious, since Christmas is all about giving gifts, right? Yet often we can give gifts out of obligation, duty or habit rather than out of love. But Christmas is all about love, and Christmas is all about a gift: the greatest gift ever given to man. The gift of Jesus Christ.

This is once again a matter of letting the truth engage you, and being actively involved in the story. God loved you. God gave to you. And that same wonderful reality is true for your spouse, your children, your parents, your neighbors. To truly celebrate Christmas is to have a heart filled with generous love to others. So what does this look like? Give thoughtful gifts. Don’t be stingy. Lavish one another with good things, as a way of expressing love to each other. Remember the saying of Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35)

And above all, we may give the gift of the good news to those who have never yet heard it. Just as the shepherds went abroad, telling the news of the Messiah’s birth, so we too can be energized and motivated anew at Christmas time to share the gospel with those around us. Christmas would not be Christmas if we the Church did not carry on sharing the glad tidings with the lost and perishing. For that is what Christmas is really all about: the light of the world coming into our darkness to save. Go tell it on the mountain!

In summary, how’s a Christian to celebrate Christmas? Have a formal and fixed time focusing on the meaning of Christmas; party with gusto; be at peace with God and man; and share God’s love with others through gifts and the gospel. Where these elements are found, there is found a successful Christmas holiday. Dear brothers and sisters, have a Merry Christmas!

1 comment:

Chris Morris said...

Thanks for this post, Eli. I have been thinking about what it means to honor God w/ Christmas and this has helped me think through it more.