The Christian and Christmas

Scripture: Jeremiah 10:2-5
Date: 12/17/2005 
The topic of this sermon is the Christian and Christmas. It's been a political flashpoint. There tends to be two extremes in approaching Christmas. Some are steeped in secular traditions or ignore it all together. Christmas is really about baby Jesus. Let us not smother it with all the partying.
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Note: This is a verbatim transcript of the live broadcast. It is presented as spoken.

This morning, I would like to touch on some things I’ve talked a little about before, but maybe from a new perspective, dealing with the subject of the Christian and Christmas and some of the ways that we may learn from the season, from what is also happening in society and a little bit from history, to better understand even how to respond to things that are happening.

I don’t know if you’ve had your ear to the ground and have noticed that Christmas has become something of a political flashpoint. There has been a lot of controversy that has been brewing over the holiday and more particularly with the Christian trappings of Christmas.

I don’t know if you know that now it is politically incorrect to say Merry Christmas. Are you aware of that? So hopefully you all make those adjustments. Now the appropriate thing to say is simply happy holidays because you could offend somebody by using the word Christmas because it has too much of a religious connotation. People are going very far these days to try to separate anything that might be considered in the public, which would be government, from religion, which would be never to be mingled with anything of the state. Frankly I think that you’ve got the separation of church and state gone mad at this point, when people get so hypersensitive to things like that.

Just this last week or a couple of weeks ago I talked about a woman who was suing over a public nativity display. These kinds of things are happening all over the country. I’ve got a number of examples of kids in school plays. How many remember when you went to school growing up, not even a Christian school, a public school, where they would have the Christmas play and nobody was apologetic about it mentioning Jesus and the angels and Mary and Joseph. Anyone else remember that? You’re not allowed to do that anymore. It’s considered forcing your religion on students that may not be of a Christian persuasion. I thought it was interesting.

Let me read a few things for you. Christian Wire Service, Washington, December 8, “Today at 1 p.m., representatives from the National Clergy Council Faith and Action in the Christian Defense Coalition dedicated a near life-size nativity scene in front of the clergy residence and hospitality center located immediately across the street from the U.S. Supreme Court. The five figurines of Joseph, Mary and the Christ child and Three Wise Men…” Wouldn’t that be six? I guess the little Jesus is not a big, full life-size. “…they are not allowed to be displayed anywhere on Capitol Hill. The display is part of a new Operation Nativity, a national effort to counter the growing secularization of the Christmas holiday. The sponsoring groups expect to be challenged by local government officials because front yards are considered public property in the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C.” So they could get sued for having a nativity scene in their own yard because it’s the mixing of church and state.

“Somebody had a similar controversy with a nativity at the Bartlett Public Library. Something is missing, Jesus, Joseph and Mary. Library officials banned the figurines from a public display. A lady named Brandy Chambliss said, ‘I took one piece out at a time and said to the library officials, does the donkey have to go? Can it stay? What about the sheep? Is that okay?’ Evidently the nativity was set out in an area for public announcements. Library workers said you can have the donkey, you can have the sheep, you can have the camels, you can have the Wise Men. You can’t have Mary, Joseph and Jesus.” Because that’s pushing religion.

I thought this was a great line. “To have the Christmas without baby Jesus in the nativity scene is like having Graceland without Elvis there.” So these are some of the things that the government is arguing over.

Let me tell you why this is relevant for you and me. In the last days, there’s going to be religious law enforced upon the people. Right now is seems like the furthest thing that could ever happen because it seems like the pendulum is swinging so far the other way, that’s exactly what you would expect though. I think it’s going to get to the place where the American public is so outraged by humanism and government telling them that all references to God and religion must be deleted from our culture that there is going to be a backlash that will go too far the other way until pretty soon religious law becomes the order. Right now it seems like it could never happen, but you’d be surprised.

Another example of this is you notice in the textbooks where it used to say AD and BC for the dating? Everyone understands AD is Anno Domini and that means the Year of Our Lord. Well, they figure that in order to date history from the birth of Christ, there’s too much of a religious overtone in that, so now they’re calling it CE for Common Era or BCE, Before Common Era, so you can get away from the reference to the Lord in the very dates of things. Have any of you seen that or have noticed that? It’s in the textbooks now and all of us who grew up remember AD and BC have to relearn it. Next thing you know, we’re going to have to figure out what a meter is.

But while we’re talking about Christmas, I think it’s important for us to be intelligent about what it is and what it isn’t and to have a balanced view of how to respond. I’ve been surprised, being a pastor, to see the two extremes that I’ve seen among Christians regarding how we relate to Christmas.

One extreme is that we get bought up in the whole worldly secular excess of the season, the capitalism, the fantasies, everything from Rudolph and Santa Claus and Frosty and the Grinch. It just becomes a very worldly melting pot of secular traditions.

The other extreme comes from those who will recognize that the 25th is not the birthday of Christ and so it must be from pagan origins. It reminds me of when we went signing Christmas carols about 20 years ago. We came to the home of some Jehovah Witness neighbors and they opened the door just long enough to say we don’t believe in Christmas and they slammed their trailer door. And we thought, well, that’s a good witness.

And so you have these two extremes and I had seen that even in our church. The two complete opposite sides of the spectrum. How do we relate? Let’s look at the facts.

First of all, where did Christmas come from? In order to understand how to relate to it, it is a good idea to know something about it. The date is connected with the Winter Solstice. You might be wondering why December 25th? All over the world in the Northern Hemisphere, the time we’re approaching right now represents the longest night of the year and the shortest day. And then finally it reaches a point where they hover at about the same time for two or three days and then you begin to notice that the days get longer and the nights get shorter, which is usually a good thing if you like sunshine. If you like the longer nights, then you will probably want to live in the North Pole in the winter and the South Pole in the summer and you won’t have to look at the sun. Otherwise, most of us I think like the sunshine.

Many religions of the world base their religion on sun worship. You know, it’s not hard to understand that because all chemical energy in our world comes from photosynthesis. The power of the sun converts into chemical energy, which is eaten by the animals and you and I eat the vegetation and even the ancients understood that life came as a result of the sun, but they didn’t know that they weren’t supposed to worship the sun, but the one who made it.

Some other things that were interesting is many of the religions, such as Ancient Babylon, Egypt, the Persians, the Romans, had gods and in their mythology, their gods or goddesses gave birth to the sun around the 25th of December. It’s interesting that many of them had similarities. I dare you to read a book by Alexander Hislop called The Two Babylons. It’s a very well-researched book. It’s an old book and you can understand something about some of the pagan traditions that are connected with this time of year.

Now, those of you who like the festivities of Christmas, don’t get too scared about what I’m sharing right now. I’m just sharing some facts. “Centuries before the birth of Jesus, early Europeans celebrated light and birth and the darkest days of the winter. Many peoples rejoiced during the Winter Solstice when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight.”

This of course if the Northern Hemisphere. “The shortest days around what we now call December 21st and then the days begin to get longer about the 25th.” It wasn’t just because of the religions of the pagan cultures. A lot of it was practical. For instance, they had celebrations in many cultures around this time of year, because for one thing, people were inside. The herds, they would often slaughter animals that they wouldn’t want to feed through the winter because there wasn’t very much feed and so there was some feasting that happened. They find this in many cultures among the northern parts of the hemisphere. The harvest had been brought in.

And so many cultures had celebrations. A lot of them were pagan. The Romans, for instance, had something called Saturnalia and this was a festivity where they would have a feast and it was usually about the 17th of December and 12 days later is was sort of capped off when they would worship Mithra, the God of the Unconquerable Son. Have you ever heard of the 12 days of Christmas? You all know what I’m talking about, and a partridge in a pear… That’s not in the bible. They also had another holiday during the same time called Juvenilia where they would honor the children and they would give them gifts. Is this beginning to sound familiar? That was also around the 25th of December.

And so you can see this history in many of the cultures of the world. The Babylons had it. While we’re on the subject, you might be wondering where the Christmas tree came from. Don’t get scared. I think that you know that in the Batchelor family, I didn’t want to get a Christmas. To me, you spend all that money on a big piece of wood and put it in the house. Men are more practical I think. And then it dries and gets pine needs everywhere. Any men with me on this? Oh, thank you so much. I thought I was all by myself. We in the Batchelor family have gone back and forth a little bit.

Growing up in my family, we didn’t always have one. My mother is Jewish, but Karen, she grew up differently. I think I told you that we compromised. I brought in an aluminum ladder and we decorated it. Everyone was happy. I found out what the spirit was. It wasn’t so much the fragrance of the tree as the gifts under the tree. So then what happened is we got an artificial tree that doesn’t smell, but at least it serves its purpose. You don’t have to cut anything down and buy a new one every year.

Some people take the verse in Jeremiah 10 and say isn’t this a bible command against Christmas trees. Let’s read it, Jeremiah 10:2, “Thus says the Lord, do not learn the way of the gentiles, nor be dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the gentiles are dismayed at them, for the customs of the people are futile. For one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of the workman with an ax, they decorate it with silver and gold, they fasten it with nails and hammers to that it will not topple.” Sounds like a Christmas tree. “They are upright. They are like a palm tree.” That’s not a Christmas tree. “And they cannot speak. They must be carried because they cannot go by themselves. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, nor can they do any good.”

Sounds a little like a Christmas tree. But it’s not. It has nothing to do with a Christmas tree. You have to biblically honest. I would like to tell you it’s the Christmas tree, but I wouldn’t be faithful if I did. All of those who practice idolatry and bible times would go and cut their idols out of the woods, they carved them like totem poles or teepees. They would overlay them with gold. That’s how they made their idols. They weren’t pure gold or silver. They were overlaid wood and they would carry them around and worship them and give gifts to them.

I am hoping nobody here is praying to their Christmas tree and carrying it around. It’s really not the same thing. But it does actually come from some pagan customs. Because those involved in sun worship notice that the evergreens never lost their leaves, especially in the countries where they grow, Scandinavia and Norway and Germany, they would decorate the trees. This even predates Christianity because it was a sign of new life that the sun would be reborn.

You might be wondering, Pastor Doug, even the very name Christmas, who knows that that mean? Christ mass. Aren’t we recognizing the Roman Catholic mass every time we say it? Well, think about this. Where does the word Monday come from? Moon day. How many of you are going to give up saying the word Monday? Where does the word August come from? Worshiping Augustus Caesar. Is anyone here going to stop using that? Or July, Julius Caesar?

There are many, many names in our culture that we use and they have just become the common names. It does not mean that you are deifying Monday or the moon when you say Monday. See what I’m saying. Yes, it may have that root, but things do change and things do evolve and they take on new meanings. You have to be intelligent about what it means in this context.

You might be thinking I’m going too far one way or the other, but just stay with me here. “In many countries, it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts and evil spirits and illness.” Part of the reason they did that is because the pine oil and the oil of the fir tree, whether it’s cedar or pine, does have medicinal properties. They found when they brought this into the homes, especially when they were more prone for respiratory problems, that it seemed to have some healing attributes. So this was another reason the trees were brought into the homes.

“Many ancient people believed that the sun was a god and the winter came every year because the sun god had become sick and weak and they celebrated the solstice because it meant that at last the sun god would begin to get well. Evergreen bows reminded them of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun god was strong and winter would return.”

Ever hear of the yule log? You know what the word yule means? You’ve heard of yule tidings. Yule is a Calvian word and it means children or infant, little child. That goes all the way back to many of the gods that were supposedly born during this time of year. “The Scandinavians adopting that word, they have a celebration starting December 21 through the Winter Solstice. In recognition of the return of the sun, fathers and sons would go out together and bring home large logs that set on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out and that often took as many as 12 days,” another reason for the 12 days of Christmas.

Now, just to give you a little perspective on how the founding fathers of American viewed Christmas. Maybe you didn’t know this. When the pilgrims first came over and the puritans, they didn’t celebrate Christmas when this country was founded. Did you know that? “Among the pilgrims, Christmas was not a holiday in early American. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings.” We’re going back that way again, aren’t we?

“The Baptist, Quakers, Presbyterians, Calvinists and other denominations taught strong opposition to the holiday that lasted in America until the middle of the 18th century. But at the same time, by contrast, in the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all and passed without incident.” And so they had the same extremes back then when it was founded from being totally forbidden to being enjoyed at the same time. I thought that was a very interesting piece of history.

When did the 25th begin to be celebrated by the church? As near as we can tell from history, in the early years of Christianity, they didn’t celebrated Christmas at all. They celebrated Easter. That was the big celebration, the time of the resurrection because at least that did happen during the biblical time of Passover.

If you read your bibles, you know that Jesus was crucified and rose during the Passover. “In the fourth century, the church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. In 356 A.D., Pope Julius I chose December 25th.” Doesn’t he look a little like Santa Clause? That’s a painting that I found online of Pope Julius. “He chose December 25th in an effort to eclipse the traditions of the pagan Roman Saturnalia festival.” In other words, they were trying to get the pagans to join the church. I’m not justifying what they did. I’m just telling you what they did. Some were saying it was to replace. Others were saying to participate in. Others were saying it was to eclipse. You have to just say, why was it done? There’s still some mystery that surrounds that.

“They first called it the Feast of the Nativity. Eventually the custom spread to Egypt…” There was a large Christian church in Egypt during that time, “…by 432 and then to England by the end of the sixty century. By the eighth century, the celebration went to Scandinavia. The church eventually was successful in taking the merriments, lights and gifts from Saturnalia festival and bringing them to the celebration of Christmas.” So this gives you a little bit of the background and the history, but a lot has changed, even since then.

I wondered whether to even talk about this on Sabbath, but I think it might be appropriate, just to give you some of the final details. Where did Santa Claus come from, the legend?

“Supposedly the legend of Santa Claus can be traced back to someone named Saint Nicholas. It was believed Nicholas was born sometime around 280 A.D. near Mira in modern day Turkey, much admired for piety and kindness, according to the legend, Saint Nicholas became the subject of many legends and gave away all of inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and the sick. One of the best known of Saint Nicholas’ stories is that he saved three poor sisters from being sold at the slavery by their father by providing them with a dowry so they could be married. Over the course of many years, Nicholas was canonized and became known as the Protector of Children and Sailors. By the Renaissance, Saint Nicholas was the most popular saint in Europe. Even after the Protestant Reformation when the veneration of saints had been discouraged. Saint Nicholas maintained a very positive reputation, especially in Holland.”

Now this is interesting, if you didn’t know this. “The name Santa Claus actually comes from the Dutch name Sinterklaas and that eventually found its way into American and we Americanized it into Santa Claus, but it is the Dutch way of saying Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas.” So that’s where the name comes from.

But it changed even more. I didn’t know whether to put this up. Was I the only one who thought at the Pope’s funeral that he looked a little like Santa Claus? I don’t want to be disrespectful, but that is one reason I put this up deliberately. A lot of the modern pictures that you see, you notice the two popes I showed you, they wore very similar garments. People have superimposed some of these papal images onto Santa Claus combined with something else.

Christmas continued to be molded, even in the last couple hundred years by the media. “In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister, wrote a long Christmas poem for his three daughters entitled an Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas. You know what the first lines were? Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. And that long poem, how many of you had to read that when you were going to school? And that long poem goes into describing Saint Nicholas as this rolley poly individual whose belly shook like a bowl full of jelly. Nobody ever had that image before. The red nose on the roof with the reindeer. That began to fill in the blanks about Saint Nicholas and it became sort of a cartoon character. It was evolving again.

Then about the same time, English author Charles Dickens, created a classic holiday called the Christmas Carol. At the time he wrote that, there were still many puritans in England who thought the Christmas season was anathema. That’s what popularized it a little bit. The story’s powerful message of charity and goodwill towards all human kind struck a chord in the United States and England and showed members of the Victorian Society the benefits of celebrating the holiday.

And it continued to evolve and these things were amalgamating. In 1939, May wrote, the founder of the May Store who also was involved in Montgomery Ward, he wrote a Christmas-themed story called Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It became a bestselling book, sold millions of copies. Then Gene Autry took the story of Rudolph and made it into a song that became the most popular song in the world at one point. How many of you knew that? Gene Autry’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Then the title went to White Christmas after that. Just giving you a little bit of the background so you can see how things have changed.

It says in the Book of Hebrews what shall I more say to talk of Frosty the Snowman and the Grinch and all of these other things that have sort of fallen into the melting pot of the Christmas holiday season and that changed it little by little. Now, into that soup of traditions and history, somewhere buried under all of that, is what the purpose of about the birth of Jesus. It’s supposed to be about the birthday of Jesus, right? But a lot of that gets lost in our culture and it just becomes really a pagan -- and the word pagan is not bad in itself. It just means a Non-Christian, Jewish or Muslim. Those are the three major religions that believe in a monotheistic god. Anything pagan is considered not from those religions. They used the term that way.

When was Jesus born? Well, one thing you can be fairly certain, it wasn’t the 25th of December. Because the church wasn’t sure exactly when it was, that’s when they began to pick another day. What are some reasons why we know that? Well, what does it tell us the shepherds were going at the time Christ was born? They were out in their fields watching their flocks. Now, I’ve been to Palestine a couple of times. To Jerusalem I should say.

And I even remember one time in the beginning of April, it was snowing. It didn’t stick, but during this time of year in Bethlehem, which is right beside Jerusalem, it’s very cold and there’s no grazing for the sheep. They are not out in the fields watching their flocks at night during this time. The sheep are all nestled away in a fold during that time of year.

Another thing you can be fairly certain of, when Christ was born, the bible tells us in Luke 2:1, “It came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered or taxed.” They would tax them based upon the census and people were required by the Roman law to make a trip to the town of their nativity, that means your birth, to be registered. No king or Caesar would ask everybody in his realm to make that trip at the coldest time of the year when there was no food in the fields to glean. So that never would have happened during that time of year. There’s no history of anyone ever doing it that time of year.

Thirdly, you can actually tell something about when Jesus was born based on his baptism. You know, the bible doesn’t tell you exactly what the date is, but you can tell roughly what time of year he was born. If you look in the bible in Luke 3:21, “When all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized,” and you jump down to verse 23, “Now Jesus himself began his ministry at about 30 years of age.” It tells us he started his ministry as he began to be 30 years of age.

Was it an accident that Christ began his ministry around his 30th birthday? A priest could not begin to serve as a priest until he was 30. Maybe he knew they would not respect him until then. When did David begin to rule as king, 30. When did Joseph go out over Egypt, 30. You’ll find many times in the bible that these types of Christs began their work at 30 years of age. So there was a reason Jesus did this.

But when was he baptized? What time of year? How long did Jesus minister, let me ask you. Three years, six months. You can read in Daniel it tells about in the midst of the week from the time of his anointing, his baptism, three and a half years in the midst of the week he caused his sacrifice to cease.

Do we know what time of year he died? The spring. Passover, that’s very definite in the bible. It tells us that. You can read that in Luke 22:15, he said, “With fervent desire, I have desire to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” So if you know that he died during the Passover, if you subtract three-and-a-half years from his death, Jesus was born -- now, keep in mind the Jewish calendar is a little different than the Roman calendar, we’re under what they call the Gregorian calendar now -- he was born in what we would call the end of September, beginning of October.

You know what I think. I can’t prove it and I don’t know, but there were three Jewish festivals in the fall. Christ died during one of the spring festivals, Passover. He may have been born during one of the Jewish festivals. It would seem to me a good thing if he was born -- I mean, if I was planning things, I would have him be born on the day of atonement, because that’s the ultimate atonement. But we don’t know that. We don’t know.

Are we going to try and change it? Are we going to go on a campaign and get everybody in the world, here at Central Church we’re going to start setting up our trees in September? I guess the markets already do that anyway, don’t they? Is it just me or does it seem to you like they start putting out Christmas and Halloween at the same time?

You realize that it is one of the most important holidays in the year, by which every other holiday is measured, and indeed the economy of the nation is measured by Christmas. It’s not only that way in North American, but it is a custom that sweeps around the world. The more influence that the United States has through media, you know how many movies and programs and TV things seem to have Christmas somehow at the core as the touchy feely center of the holiday season? They watch these in translations around the world. Now they celebrate Christmas in Japan. I remember I’ve seen them in India with all the different pagan holidays they might have. You’ll even see trappings of Christmas, sweeping around the world. It’s very interesting.

So we don’t know exactly when Jesus was born, but he was very likely born in the fall of 4 B.C. How do we respond having looked at some of these things to what we should do about Christmas? Let me give you a few things from the Spirit of Prophecy on this. I’m not going to read everything I have here, but for those who might be visiting, Ellen White is one of the founders of the Adventist Church, brilliant woman, wrote more than any other woman in American history, especially on themes of religion, education and diet. But she has a number of references here about how do you deal with.

“Letters of inquiry have come to us asking, should we have a Christmas tree? Will it not be like the world. We answer you, you can make it like the world if you have a disposition to do so or you can make it as unlike the world as possible. There’s no particular sin in selecting a fragrant evergreen and placing it in our churches. But the sin lies in the motive that prompts you to action and the use that is made of the gifts placed upon the tree.” Did you get that? Gifts placed on the tree.

“Christmas and New Year celebrations can and should be held on behalf on those who are helpless. God is glorified when we give to help those who have large families to support.” Again, you notice that the context of these holidays is not what’s in it for me and how much can I spend on myself and my family, but on giving to those who are struggling.

“Let not the parents take the position that the evergreen placed in the church for the amusement of the Sabbath school scholars as a sin.” That’s what she’s calling the kids, the Sabbath school scholars. “For it may be a great blessing. Keep before their minds benevolent objects.” What does benevolent mean? A desire to give. If we would look at it as a desire to give instead of what are we going to get, that should be the spirit.

A couple more thoughts. “The 25th of December is supposed to be the day of the birth of Jesus and its observance has become customary and popular.” That hits the nail right on the head. “But yet there is no certainty that we are keeping the variable day of the Savior’s birth. History gives us no certain assurance of this. The bible does not give us the precise time. Had the Lord deemed this knowledge essential to our salvation, he would have spoken through his prophets and apostles that we might know about the matter. But the silence of the scriptures upon this point evidences to us that it hidden from us for the wisest of purposes.”

By the way, you know that in some churches, going to church and celebrating in the mass on Christmas is the most important time of the year to do that. Some of you have heard about Christians who go Christmas and Easter, twice a year. It’s those who consider the two great high points and some even weave it into salvation.

“As the 25th of December is observed to commemorate the birth of Christ as the children have been instructed by precept and example that this was indeed the day of gladness and rejoicing, you will find it difficult to pass over this period without giving it some attention. It can be made to serve a very good purpose.” The idea is if you’re going to do it, do it for what? Benevolence and to serve a good purpose.

“By the world, the holidays are spent in frivolity and extravagance and gluttony and display. Thousands of dollars will be worst than thrown away upon the coming Christmas and New Years in needless indulgences. But it is our privilege to depart from the customs and practices of this degenerate age and instead of expending means merely for the gratification of appetite or for needless ornaments and articles of clothing, we make the coming holidays an occasion in which we honor and glorify God.” To do it for good, to glorify God.

And then here is the last reference. I’m sorry, I never gave you any of these. Several of these are from Adventist Home, Page 482, and this one is from Adventist Review 12/17/1989. “May the Lord forbid that any of us should be so narrow-minded as to overlook the event…” speaking of Christmas, “…because there’s an uncertainty in regarding the exact time. Let us do what we can to fasten the minds of the children upon those things that are precious to everyone who loves Jesus. Let us teach them how Jesus came into the world to bring hope, comfort, peace and happiness to all.”

In other words, capitalize on the good things. Which brings to our scripture reading. Paul was dealing with some of these issues with some of the early Christians who are being urged by the Jewish believers that the gentile converts needed to keep all the Jewish holidays. Here’s how Paul responds to that in Romans 14:1, “Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to dispute over doubtful things.” Don’t argue about things that are doubtful.

“For one believes he might eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables.” Of course, here he’s not talking at all about vegetarianism. He’s talking about those who are doubtful who have weak faith, they wouldn’t eat any animals because they had been offered to gods and they thought I’ll be worshipping pagan gods if I eat that sheep or that chicken. See what he’s saying? He calls them weak in faith.

There are some people who have that same attitude about Christmas. If I go in that building and there’s a wreath on the wall, I’ll be worshipping pagan gods. I’ve actually ran into that believe it or not. It’s kind of sad. We’re missing the big point.

“Let him who eats despise not him who does not eat and let not him who does eat grudge him who eats for God has received them. For who are you that judges another man’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he’ll be made to stand for God is able to make him stand. One person esteemed one day about another.” Here’s the part you’ll want to catch. “Another one esteems everyday alike. Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind.” Some have tried to apply this to the Sabbath commandment. It has nothing to do with one of the Ten Commandments. It’s talking about holidays and what are you supposed to keep and observe and what aren’t you.

“Let each one be convinced in his mind.” Here’s the point. “He who observes the day observes it to the Lord.” How? If you’re going to recognize Christmas, how do you do it? To the Lord. Do it for good, to glorify God. “He who does not observe the day to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats to the Lord, eats to the Lord for he gives God thanks and he who does not eat to the Lord, he does not eat and gives God thanks, for none of us lives to himself and none of us dies to himself.”

So one of the things it’s guarding us against is judging each other. Do I have any bible right to tell you that you’re supposed to recognize Christmas? Where’s the scripture for that? There is none. And at the same time, those who don’t feel that way, they shouldn’t be condemning those who disagree with them. Does that make sense? Everyone needs to be persuaded in their own mind and frankly I think with all that’s happening in the world today, that’s the very last thing we should be worrying about.

1 Corinthians 9:19, Paul also puts it this way, “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all that I might win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew that I might win Jews. To those who are under the law, as under the law that I might win those who are under the law. To those who are without law, as without law,” not being without law towards, but under law towards Christ, “that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became as weak that I might win the weak.” Don’t miss this. This is a principle. “I have become all things to all men that I might by all means save some.”

In other words, anything that you can do without sacrificing a principle or conscience and capitalize on as an opportunity to witness, do it. I would think what better time of year to talk about the second coming than when the rest of the world is thinking about the first coming. When people are giving away gifts, it’s a great time to give away witnessing tools. Yes, there might be some materialism and some merchandizing and some excess. Well, not might be, there’s a whole lot of it. But don’t focus on that. Overcome evil with good. Focus on the opportunities and the ways to be able to make it a privilege to witness and to share Jesus. Amen.

And so these are some of the things that we might consider. I’m not going to ask you if you’ve been out shopping. I’m not very good at buying gifts. It’s hard for me to read the person’s mind and try to figure out what they want. It’s really easy for me if you tell me what you want and I’ll go get it or buy gift certificates. Karen thinks that’s kind of callus, but it’s a lot easier and say here’s a store, buy something there. If any of you want to know, Home Depot works fine for me. Oh, by the way, thank you for all the cards. I never have publicly thanked you. Some of you send some very nice cards during the holiday season.

There are a lot of very nice traditions that are family traditions and traditions that may not be in the bible, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with a tradition if it doesn’t conflict with any biblical principle. It’s good to have traditions. It brings families together. It’s things that you do.

But this is a time of year for us to really focus on the gift of Jesus. He is supposed to the be the center and unfortunately many people, you can almost smell the plastic smoking because people’s credit cards are just burning up this time of year. So much friction develops in swiping them from one place to the next that you can just smell that burning plastic as you drive by the mall. Spend a lot of money and everybody knows that.

Sometimes, let’s face it, people feel like they’re under pressure. Well, they got me something last year and it probably cost about this much, so I’m under obligation now to get something about the same amount. Have you ever felt any of that pressure? It’s like we all have to trade things and trade gifts and I suppose it’s good for the economy, but if you were to figure out how much money is spent by Christians during this time of year on relatives or friends or family -- family and relatives are almost the same, aren’t they -- then compare that with how much is spent on Christ and his work, I think you’d see that it’s very lopsided.

You notice that during the holidays the Wise Men, when they came to see Jesus, they did not give gifts to each other. They gave gifts to Jesus. He is the one that we are supposed to be sacrificing for and I think it’s a shame if we’re going to go into debt and pay interest on our debt so we can buy very often frivolous things because of a season. I don’t think a season or tradition should dictate that. It should be an opportunity for us to worship Him. This is a time when God gave His greatest give.

You know the other thing about this time of year, the greatest miracle is the miracle of the incarnation and the new birth. The way that Jesus was conceived miraculously in Mary, the spiritual lessons there are so profound, that is how He is born in the church.

As a matter of fact, in that song “Little Town of Bethlehem,” you have in your hymnals, we’re not going to sing it today, but it says be born in us today. It’s a miracle. I think one reason that Jesus was conceived in a miraculous way from a virgin is because this is the same kind of miracle of how He is spontaneously born of the spirit in us. It can’t be explained. And how God could be incarnate and live His life in human flesh, that’s a miracle. What’s the lesson? Jesus wants to live out His life in you. He says as the Father sent me, the first time Christ came, sent by the Father, so send I you. I will be in you, Christ in us, the hope of glory.

And so when we’re thinking of the First Advent, what a great opportunity to talk about the Second Advent. There’s so much good about that story. I always thought that it was beautiful. I mentioned this at an AFGO (phonetic) graduation a couple of weeks ago. Jesus is the bread of life, right? He was born in Bethlehem. Who knows what Bethlehem means? House of bread. And then they placed the bread of life, who was born in the house of bread, in a manger where bread is put for animals. It’s all about feeding. As a matter of fact, what were the shepherds doing when the angels came? Feeding their sheep. Taking care of their sheep. And so there’s so much good theology in the story of Christmas. Let’s be careful that’s it’s not eclipsed by all the fanfare and the purpose of the gift to God is lost sight of.

I heard a story just this week of a Jewish family. For those of you who don’t know, Orthodox Jews have a special celebration eight days after a baby boy is born and during that time, they practice circumcision, but it’s a celebration. Friends come over, there’s a party, they bring the rabbi over. In this one family, a wealthy family, they sent out invitations and invited all their friends. It’s where they officially name the child.

This is what happened when Zacharias and Elizabeth had everyone over, all their family, and they named John the Baptist. Same kind of party. The little baby, he’s eight days old. They wanted him all dressed up real pretty and nice and had him all dressed up for the party, but babies are off schedule and he went to sleep just before the guests arrived. They didn’t want him cranky, so they said to let him sleep and we’ll wake him up when it’s time for the ceremony.

In the meantime, there’s some eating and festivities. They laid him down on the guest bed because his room was full of gifts. They laid him in the guest bedroom on the bed and they put a jacket on the right and the left, covered him up, to bolster, make sure he wouldn’t roll off the bed. Well, they left the door ajar so they could hear if the baby would cry.

When the guest began to come, they didn’t see a place to hang their coats and one of the guests looked in and saw the coats on the bed and didn’t pay close attention and threw their coat. Well, the next person came in and saw the door now wide open and coats laying there and they began to pile the coats up on top of the baby. Finally, when they went to get the baby, it had been smothered by all the people who came to the party.

It’s a tragic story, but you wonder if that’s what happens in the eyes of heaven with Jesus during Christmas. It’s really supposed to be about the baby, but we get so involved in the party that he gets smothered, the life gets smothered right out of him.

And so I guess that would be my appeal to you. Be intelligent. Let the Holy Spirit guide you to know how to respond. Use it for good. Use it to witness. If you’re going to give, make sure that Jesus doesn’t get a tip and everybody else gets lavished. Because it’s really about the baby that God sent. Amen.

Is that your desire, to have Christ born in you as Mary did, a miracle birth?

Dear Lord, our Father in Heaven, we’d like to begin by asking you to forgive us by being distracted and even mesmerized with all of the sparkle and the glitter so that we forget what the central purpose of this time might be, to focus on Christ, His first coming, the miracle of the incarnation and that He would be willing to be born in us. Lord, I pray that each of us can experience that miracle birth and that Christ would come alive in our hearts, that you would cleanse us.

Also, Lord, it is a demonstration of incredible love and humility that you would condescend to come from the courts of heaven to lay aside your glorified being and to take on the form of a human. And then also, Lord, to remember the same way you came right on time the first time, you will soon come the second time. I pray that this can be core to our beliefs.

Help us to take advantage of this time of year when hearts are softened that we might glorify you, witness to others and also, when so much is being done in the exchange of gifts, I pray that gifts of love for you will be the priority. Gifts of love for our fellow men who are really in need will be the priority.

Bless this church with an outpouring of your spirit and every family here and give us wisdom to know how to keep Christ in the center and to balance all these dynamics and traditions. In Jesus’ name we ask, Amen.

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