Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Eve

Here's the sermon I'm preaching here in about 8 hours. I really had trouble preparing this one. For some reason it just didn't come out right. I continue to hone my craft, still don't think preaching is for me . . . I'm too interested getting out of the office, and am too much of a perfectionist when it comes to writing. Any way, thought one or two of you may enjoy taking a looksy here. Here it is (also, with blogger's new changes, I'll probably be changing things up around here - after two years I suppose it's time.):

Sermon #52 (For some strange anal retentive reason I started numbering my sermons when I started preaching so I know how many I've preached. Thought it might be interesting to know how many I've preached when I'm like 80).
Text: Leviticus 23 – 25; Luke 14: 26
December 24, 2006 – Alum Creek Church

The Rhythm of Christmas

Whether you love Christmas or hate it . . . it’s here. You’ve got approximately 8 more hours of shopping left, meaning many of you are really praying that we’re done in a hurry this morning.
Christmas is an enigma. It’s different from anything else we experience in our culture. Most people love it. Some people hate it. Many people are indifferent to it. It doesn’t really matter how you feel about it; your life is affected by it. Shopping malls are crowded. Gas prices go up. Airline tickets are expensive and hard to come by. Its music abounds on just about every radio station. In a word – it’s everywhere.
Speaking of music – there’s nothing more unique about Christmas than its music. What other holiday can bring you those great majestic songs like “O, Holy Night” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” alongside not so majestic classics like Elmo & Patsy’s “Grandma Got Ran Over By a Reindeer” and timeless lines like, “your heart is full of unwashed socks, your soul is full of gunk, Mr. Grinch, the three words that best describe you are as follows, and I quote, ‘Stink! Stank! Stunk!”
It’s the holidays. It’s Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Years, and College Football Bowl season. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. It’s Christmas time in the city . . . ring a ling . . . hear them ring. It’s a lot of things to a lot of people. Consider these descriptions of the “most wonderful time of the year.”
· It’s the time of year when Santa Claus makes his rounds avoiding the naughty and rewarding the nice.
· It’s the time of year when parents spend more money than they have.
· It’s the time of year when businesses make their rent for the rest of the year.
· It’s the time of year when an electrical blackout is closer than at any other time of the year.
· It’s the time of year for long lines at shopping malls and insane traffic patterns in those stupid strip mall parking lots – who ever designed those anyways?
· It’s the time of year when people are at their nicest – giving more money than at any other time of the year, smiles all around, and “The Christmas spirit” is alive and well.
· It’s the time of year when people are at their worst – Christmas bandits stealing other’s Christmas presents, vandalizing Nativity scenes, scrooges, rude customers, and impatient drivers.
· It’s the time of the year for Christmas stories according to Charlie Brown, the Grinch, Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer, Jimmy Stewart, and, of course, Ralphie Parker in A Christmas Story (the other Christmas story that Ed was talking about last week, sorry for the confusion).
And on and on we could go. Christmas means so much to so many people. It’s
bigger than any one person. It’s bigger than a church or a denomination. It’s had a long and colorful history.
If you have grown up in Churches of Christ, or have been around the Churches of Christ for very long, you may have been left with quite another image of what Christmas is all about. Many congregations of Churches of Christ all around the country today are making no mention of the holiday that is upon us. Now most will exchange gifts at their homes, and have a large Christmas tree and display, but believe it is not to be seen as a religious observance.
Perhaps, you, like me, grew up in a church like this. The Sunday nearest Christmas was always an interesting one. The songs may or may not be “Christmas” in orientation – there was usually just as good of a chance as singing “Bringing in the Sheaves” and “When the Roll is Called up Yonder, as there was at singing “Away in a Manger” or “The First Noel.” The sermon may or may not have had anything to do with Bethlehem or Magi or Nativity and could have just as easily been a homily covering the life and times of Hezekiah.
While you may not have a clue what would be sung or what the sermon would be about, you could be assured that at some point during the service, one of the following public disclaimers would be offered. “We don’t know the day or the time of his birth” and “You know Christmas has pagan origins so we choose not to celebrate it here,” and “the Bible doesn’t mention Christmas,” and, my favorite, “We celebrate the birth of Christ every day, not just one day like the ‘world’ does.” [And by “world,” I think they always meant Catholics.] Unfortunately, it often seemed to me that Christmas was the one day we wouldn’t celebrate the birth of Christ.
The more I’ve talked and interacted with members of Churches of Christ all over the country, I am finding that this was (and still is) a pretty common approach to the holiday we call Christmas. I’ve done my best to see where this teaching originated and how long it has been around and who started it, and what their grounds for starting it was, etc. The fact is, this is a pretty difficult topic to dig up. The best I can offer is the following [thanks to Travis Stanley whose blog linked the following article]:

“It seems evident from what we have gathered, that this institution is purely human in its origin--not having been generally [21] established until about the middle of the 4th century--that the time at which it is observed is entirely arbitrary, having evidently no certain relation to the event which it celebrates--and that its observance is distinguished mainly by ceremonies no way suited to its nature, but evidently transferred, with a few modifications and additions from the ancient Roman Pagan festival of the Saturnalia. Human in its origin, arbitrary and irrelevant in its time, and Pagan in its ceremonies, it clearly has no claims whatever upon the true Christian. He is at perfect liberty to disregard it at pleasure, and to demean himself without any further reference to it than his own feelings may incline him to. Yet there are one or two suggestions which may not be unimportant to us. It is true., that in some form or other, this day is regarded by most professing Christians. Society is so organized that this cannot well be avoided. The question is natural and useful--If we respect it at all, how ought we to spend it? Certainly, to the Lord. If we observe it at all, it is because it is called the birth-day of our Saviour, and our rejoicing should be in him. The good tidings of great joy, brought by the angel, should be our theme; and with the multitude of the heavenly host should we praise God, saying, Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace and good will amongst men; for to-day was born to us, in the city of David, a Saviour, who is the Lord Messiah!”[1]

This comes from the pen of William Kimbrough Pendleton writing in Mr. Restoration Movement himself, Alexander Campbell’s journal The Millenial Harbinger in January 1848. I spend a fair amount of time researching this topic this week, and couldn’t find many references to Churches of Christ and Christmas accentuating the fact that we mostly haven’t wanted to talk much about Christmas in our chuches.
I understand that many of you here this morning have grown up with this understanding of Christmas, and aren’t totally convinced that there is much wrong in avoiding the religious celebration of Christmas. I also believe many of you here have seen Christmas dealt with in this way, and think it is stupid and we should take it and run with it. Finally, I believe that there’s also a large number of folks here who aren’t familiar with our churches and probably think this is the stupidest discussion we could ever waste our time having.
I can go ahead and show my hand early. I think that the church does very well to celebrate Christmas. I think that any time people come together to remember anything about God, He is pleased. And I think it’s that simple. But I think there is a bigger reason for celebrating Christmas, something more fundamental and foundational to our lives. It’s something that we’ve often missed in our churches, and I hope it’s something we’re recovering.
You can be rest assured, the disclaimer made at my church growing up every Christmastime, “The Bible doesn’t mention Christmas,” in one hundred percent correct. The Christmas celebration of the birth of Christ came about after the formulation of Scripture. However, to use that as an argument for why not to celebrate Christmas goes against the grain of Scripture.
Just a quick aside. I think that one of the strongest reasons for celebrating Christmas is considering Jesus’ celebration of the Festival of Lights (Hanukkah) in the Gospel of John. Here you’ve got Jesus himself celebrating a non-Torah commissioned festival (you’ll have to see Maccabees to find rationale for this one) and nowhere does he seem critical or bothered. He enjoys the festival, and offers messianic fulfillment even of this feast. He is the true light they are celebrating!
In any case, in addressing Christmas, this morning we go to what is probably an unexpected place. Had we taken bets on the sermon text for this morning, the odds on this text would have been huge. The first place we must venture into is the Old Testament book of Leviticus – just the name alone is daunting, I know. Leviticus is probably not our favorite book because it is a book of laws – and primitive Old Testament laws at that. Many an ambitious read-the-Bible-through-in-a-year Bible reader has lost at the battle of Leviticus. However, if you know me very well, you know that I love the book of Leviticus. I think this book is rich in theology and typology for New Testament Christianity and essential for every Christian.
Our study of Christmas takes us to Leviticus 23 – 25. This section of the Law records the yearly festivals that the Israelites are to celebrate. [Read Leviticus 23: 1 – 2.] They are called festivals (or “sacred assemblies”); I think we would call them religious holidays. There was to be a major festival in the beginning of the spring called Passover to remind the Israelites of their deliverance from Egyptian slavery. And Passover began the weeklong Feast of Unleavened bread – a weeklong prayer for God to bless the growing season. Fifty days later was the next major festival – the festival of Pentecost (or the Festival of Weeks) which marked the end of the grain harvest. Finally, the most festive of the holidays was the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths in the fall. Perhaps most closely related to our Thanksgiving Day holiday, this was a celebration of the harvest God had blessed them with.
Each holiday had its own duties and rites to celebrate and honor, and each day was a day (or days) of rest so that full attention could be given to the festival. While these were the three foundational holidays, there were other holidays that would occur throughout the year – Rosh Hashanah marked the beginning of the new year and the somber Yom Kippur was the day Israel’s atoning sacrifices were offered.
Foundational to all the festivals, was the weekly holiday – Sabbath. Every seventh day, all work was to stop, all farmers were to take a break and rest to the Lord.
On a macro level, every seventh year was to be a Sabbath rest from work for the workers and the land. It took an extreme trust in the Lord.
And finally, after seven Sabbath years had passed, there was to be a Jubilee in the land that would be the ultimate festival – a year-long party where slaves would be released, land would be returned to its rightful owner, and liberty would be proclaimed throughout the land.
This was quite an elaborate scheduled system to ensure the people’s remembrance of the Lord. Reflecting on the rigorous schedule the Israelites followed, Gordon Wenham makes the following comment in his commentary on Leviticus:
Through this elaborate system of feasts and sabbatical years the importance of the Sabbath was underlined. Through sheer familiarity the weekly Sabbath could come to be taken for granted. But these festivals and sabbatical years constituted major interruptions to daily living and introduced an element of variety into the rhythm of life.[2]
“The rhythm of life.” That phrase just kind of resonates with me. It’s not your typical sermon topic, I admit, but I think that there is something very central that this idea gets at. Our lives beat to some kind of drum. I’ve often been told I walk to the beat of a different drum, but I think that’s something altogether different. Our rhythm of life is what makes us tick. It’s how we establish meaning and worth. It’s how we set our priorities. It’s how we organize our lives.
The Israelites had a calendar that promoted their rhythm. Our calendars, too, promote the rhythm in our lives, but too often on an altogether different level. While the life of Israel beat to the drum of remembrance and worship and purity; too often our hearts beat to the drum of self-absorption, idolatry, materialism, and nationalism. Consider how quick we are to salute the flag and honor our veterans on their days, but hesitate honoring the Christ at days appointed to remember his birth and resurrections.
While Israel’s feasts had agricultural and political implications, they were always, and fundamentally, about worship. They were built-in times to help the people remember. At Passover a son asks his father, “Why is today different than other days?” at which his father retells the story of the Exodus. During the Festival of Booths, they Israelites would assemble tent-like booths outside to remember the years of wandering about in the desert. Trumpets were blown. Sacrifices and offerings were made. Ceremonies were to be followed. All at hopes of emphasizing to the people what God had done for them.
And so we come to one of the very few opportunities to be reminded ourselves. There is a yearlong church calendar that has many opportunities. We have shied away from using it in our tradition “because ‘they’ use it,” but there is great value in the reminders. Christmas is a “sacred assembly” for us. It is a time to remember, to participate, to embody.
“O holy night,” the wonderful Savior has been born! Light the Christmas lights around your house symbolizing the true light that is Christ which illuminates your home every day. Exchange gifts with the ones that you love remembering that the Wisemen also brought gifts in honor of the great birth of Christ.
Opportunities for service are abundant, find someone who can use a hand, and offer a loving hand. Receive Christmas presents from Santa Claus, knowing that the better gift of life and salvation comes from Jesus Christ. Celebrate with food and eat in loving honor of God who made this all possible by sending his son. Watch the 24 hour Christmas Story marathon on TBS remember it is God who gives the gift of laughter.
Do all of these great holiday things knowing that it is Christ that makes this day worth anything. The good tidings that have been brought to us are unfathomable. And in the midst of the holiday consider the wonder of the story.
I think that one of the most important Christian moments in popular culture happens every Christmas time when Charles Schultze takes two minutes to share the Gospel with millions of people. What an ingeniously brave thing he did by taking his characters in Charlie Brown and reminding us all what Christmas is all about. I think his life beat in rhythm with God’s.
This Christmas, consider the rhythm in your life.

[1] W. K. Pendleton's "Christmas Day" was first published in The Millennial Harbinger, Third Series, Vol. 5, No. 1, January 1848. The electronic version of the essay has been produced from the College Press reprint (1976) of The Millennial Harbinger, ed. Alexander Campbell (Bethany, VA: A. Campbell, 1848), pp. 17-22. [The excerpt quoted here is from p. 21 – 22].
[2] Wehman, Gordon J. The Book of Leviticus. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. (Eerdmans Publishing: Grand Rapids, MI, 1979). 301. Emphasis mine.

1 comment:

Brian said...

Adam, wish I could have heard you deliver this sermon. I grew up at a church much like what you describe. I have always attributed many of the restoration ideas, especially regarding Christmas and Easter, as taking Protestantism to an extreme anti-Catholic position. But I have grown to see Christmas as a religious celebration as I have grown older. I think it began back at Lipscomb when Greg Wakefield told me story about two kids discussing Christmas. One kid gives the CoC line about not knowing when Christ was born. The other boy says, "If no one knew when I was born, it would not bother if they just picked a day to be my birthday." One of things I find funny is that we don't celebrate Christmas because of its "pagan" origins, yet when CoCers celebrate Christmas with some of the most Pagan elements (Christmas Trees) of the holiday.

I was really struck this past December when on "Studio 60", the characters, in an attempt to discredit Christmas as Christ's birth, used the classic CoC line: It's winter, so the shepherds would not have their flocks out at that time.

Since we moved to Miami, Julie have made a point of attending Christmas Eve services at some church or another. It has helped to make Christmas special. I look forward to finding new ways to make the celebration more spiritual.