Hello, everybody! Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and I’m starting a sermon series called, “What’s So Special about Christmas?” Thanks to Rick Warren of Saddleback Church for the idea. We’ll be looking at the relevance, reason, and result of the Christmas event. Today is the question is this: Why is Christmas relevant to our lives and our faith?
SCRIPTURE John 1:1-14
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
What’s So Special About Christmas?
#1 – The Relevance of Christmas
Dec. 2, 2007
Well, here we are. It’s Christmas time again. Although the church is only now officially recognizing the start of the Christmas season on this first Sunday of Advent, the retail culture around us has been in the holiday spirit for awhile now. Before long you’ll be able to get your 4th of July fireworks and your Christmas tree on the same weekend.
During the course of Advent I want us to try and answer this question: What is so special about Christmas? Because I believe we may have forgotten. In the midst of all the other holidays – Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, even Festivus “(for the rest of us!”) – we’ve forgotten the meaning of Christmas. Now, I’m not going to stand up here and “Ba humbug!” at the radio stations who start playing Christmas music in early November. I’m not going to rant and rave about the people who put their Christmas lights up before Thanksgiving. We can throw as big a fit as we want, but some things aren’t going to change. It’s not like if we make enough noise the stores will only put out Christmas items starting Dec. 1, right?
So if we can’t change the culture, we need to ask what we can do to recapture the meaning of Christmas. I wrote in my blog last year about the whole “Happy Holidays” vs. “Merry Christmas” debate. People complain that by not saying “Merry Christmas” we are somehow diluting the meaning of the season.
The basic controversy is that our culture at large is moving away from religious-specific statements like “Merry Christmas!” to more generic, all-inclusive statements like, “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings.” I think it was Tommy on the Rugrats who came up with “Merry Christmakwanzaakkuh.” Which of course really ticked off those folks who celebrate the Winter Solstice.
Some say the reason for this shift to a blander seasonal salutation is political correctness. A Christian humor site I subscribe to sent out this version of a season’s greeting: “Best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress, non-addictive, gender neutral, winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most joyous traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, but with respect for the religious persuasion of others who choose to practice their own religion as well as those who choose not to practice a religion at all.”
In an effort not to offend anyone, we take all the salt out of our language, but sometimes the Christian response can be just as offensive. People bemoan the lack of “Merry Christmas!” signs at Walgreens, and resolutely offer the Christian greeting to grocery clerks in a tone more fit for a battle cry, as if they’re saying, “Merry Christmas – wanna make something of it?”
But in the fighting the war for Christmas, I wonder if we’ve gotten so caught up in the battle that we’ve forgotten what we’re fighting for. We’ve forgotten why Christmas is important in the first place, the relevance of what takes place on Christmas.
Because of that, I have no problems with people wishing me something other than “Merry Christmas.” They can cheerily wish me a ‘Happy Holiday’ until icicles dangle from their nose. I’m fine with the phrase “Merry Christmas” disappearing from our larger culture. In fact, I applaud and encourage it. Why? Because it’s the best chance we have of reclaiming Christmas for what it truly is.
Look, we Christians lost our grip on Christmas a LONG time ago, and no matter how many “Christ is the reason for the season” bumper stickers we produce, we’re never going to forcibly take it back for the culture’s grip. It’s too far gone. Christmas is no more a religious holiday than my wife’s Christmas cookies are a diet food.
But people are still in an uproar about the diminishing of “Merry Christmas.” They say, “Why should it that phrase be offensive? It’s just an innocent holiday hello.” Exactly! That term no longer signifies a religious observance; if anything, it marks the beginning of a consumer season, like the green flag being waved at the Indy 500. People don’t see “Merry Christmas” as having any potential to offend because it doesn’t really mean anything anymore. It’s lost its relevance to the real meaning of Christmas.
But here’s the real reason why I’m happy to give up saying “Merry Christmas” in non-Christian settings. Wouldn’t it be great if we could reclaim Christmas as a primarily Christian celebration? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could say “Merry Christmas” only when we actually meant it in the most joyous, hopeful sense? I say “Happy Holidays” to the 7-11 clerk because I truly hope he has a happy holiday, regardless of whether he is Christian, a Winter Solstician, or celebrates Festivus. But at church, I say “Merry Christmas,” because I want my fellow Christians to truly experience the miracle that Christmas brings for their life and their faith.
What I hope is that the idea of Christmas can be insulated from the culture’s grip. Give them “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings.” They can have it. No one is complaining that “Happy Hanukkah” has lost its meaning, because you hardly ever heard it said in connection with 50% -off sale. We’re not beaten over the head with “only 25 more shopping days until Kwanzaa!” If only “Merry Christmas” could gain that same kind of scarcity. If Christmas begins to disappear from the larger culture, maybe the church can repossess it, wipe off all the tinsel and yucky cultural residue, give it a good spit-shine, and place it back up on the mantle. If we can do that, maybe, just maybe, Christmas could actually be about what it’s supposed to be about.
Which brings me back to the relevance of Christmas. At its core, at its essence, what makes Christmas so special? Yes, it’s the day Jesus was born. But why is that special? What’s the significance of his birth? What makes this event so remarkable in the Jewish history that it not only spawned a completely new religion still observed 2000 years later, but that it also basically recalibrated our understanding of time, resetting the human clock to 0, creating B.C. and A.D.?
It’s simply this: God came to earth. That, more than anything else, is what Christmas is all about. To understand the relevance of that, we have to understand the nature of the God-humanity relationship leading up to that time. From the time of Adam and Eve onward, the human understanding of God was one of a larger-than-life being who was completely separate from humanity. God and humans co-existed, worked together, even conversed, but there was always a distance there, because God was wholly Other. When Moses asked God’s name at the burning bush, God said, “I am who I am,” or more accurately, “I will be who I will be.” In other words, “That’s for me to know. Don’t worry about it, because you wouldn’t understand.”
The basic belief in the Hebrew scriptures was that God was so awesome and powerful that any human being who laid eyes on God would immediately die. God was too glorious and majestic to behold. In fact, God was so sacred, Jews believe you couldn’t even speak His name. God was thought of like the lion Aslan is described in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”: he was by no means safe, but he was good. The Israelites feared God in the most reverent way.
But then comes this strange phenomenon of Christmas. The God of Israel, the God of power and might and even wrath, comes to earth as a little baby. Nobody’s afraid of a baby. Maybe a baby’s diaper, but not a baby! God, who had been wholly Other, wholly separate, completely unknowable, now existed as a human child, soon to become a human adult. He even had a name fraught with meaning: Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”
I remember hearing a story about a little girl who climbed out of bed one night and went into her parents’ room. Her dad woke up and said, “What’s wrong, sweetie?” She said, “I’m scared.” He said, “There’s nothing to be scared of. Remember, God is looking out for you.” “I know,” she said, “but right now I need God with skin on.”
“God with skin on.” That’s the relevance of Christmas: God with us. “Word of the father, now in flesh appearing.” This one event fundamentally changed the nature of our relationship with God. Through Jesus, we can learn things about God’s nature that we never had learned before. Jesus reveals to us what God is really like, and definitively shows us God’s love and mercy for us. Jesus is God’s way of saying, “I know what you are going through, because I’ve been a human, too, who experienced all the things it meant to be alive.” The pain, the grief, the anger, the disappointment, the joy – God knows what all those feel like. He was born like us. He grew up like us. The Word became flesh.
So as we move into the Christmas season, remember the relevance of what we are celebrating. The good news is not that he came, but why he came, and we’ll talk about that next week. But for now, amidst the lights and the ornaments and the shopping and the reindeer, remember – Christmas is about Emmanuel, God with us.
1- What’s your favorite thing about Christmas?
2 – Where do you stand on the “Merry Christmas” debate?
3 – Do you do anything during this season to stay anchored in the true meaning of it?