I meant to post this on Sunday. It was meant as a blog both for Sunday, using the lectionary readings for Christmas Day (Year B) – Isaiah 52: 7 – 10, Hebrews 1: 1 – 12, and John 1: 1 – 14 – as well as a blog for Christmas. From one standpoint, Christmas this year was special because it came on a Sunday. Looking back at my notes and records I find that I have yet to preach a sermon on Christmas Day.
During the time I was at Neon, Walker Valley, and Tompkins Corners Christmas was on another day of the week and neither of the churches planned anything special. Twice in my career Christmas Eve been on a Sunday; both times it was also the 4th Sunday in Advent. In one instance at Walker Valley (December 24, 2000), I prepared one message for the morning (“It’s the Little Things”) and another for the evening Christmas Eve service (“Why All the Shouting?”) The second time, December 24, 2006, I was at Dover and had to plan for the transition from Advent to Christmas Eve during the same service; it made for an interesting service – “Words of Christmas”.
My previous Christmas Day messages are “So This Is Christmas”
(2005), “Does It Matter?”
(2006), What Gift Did You Give?
(2007), “The Christmas Miracle”
(2008), and “Why Should This Day Be Any Different?” (2009).
So this is an interesting blog
I sometimes wonder if we really understand what the true gift of Christmas is. I am not even sure we understand what the meaning of Christmas is or why we even celebrate Christmas.
Like so many people I grew up with a traditional view of the Christmas story, of Christ being born in a stable in Bethlehem on December 25th with shepherds, wise men, and assorted farm animals in attendance. It was a combination of what Matthew and Luke had written and I accepted it, even though it was clear that there were contradictions in the narrative.
In addition, the celebration of Christmas didn’t begin until almost 250 years after the beginning of the church. Christ’s birth was not as important as was His death, resurrection, and 2nd coming. And if the shepherds were in the fields with their flocks, it probably was more like March or April than December.
It is probably just as well that we do celebrate Jesus birth in December because if we opted for the more probable time we would have the interesting situation of celebrating Christmas and Easter almost at the same time. I do not think that would be the best solution.
The December date was chosen as an alternative to traditional pagan celebrations that occurred around the 25th. For some, doing this creates a falsity in Christianity. I don’t know; Christ was born and so he had to have a birthday. What do those individuals whose birthdate is February 29th do? Do they only celebrate their birth once every four years? It isn’t the date or the choice of dates that is the important part of the moment; it is the celebration of the moment so we do it on December 25th.
We are also hung up on the gift giving that takes place, so much so that it seems our economic system will collapse if we do not buy each and every one of our friends, relatives, and neighbors a gift. But the gifts that were given that first Christmas were not to the parents or the shepherds but to a newborn baby perceived to be a present and future King, a King who would change the world.
Nothing in the Bible tells us when they came (and some traditions put their arrival at up to two years after the birth) or how many there were. We get the idea of three wise men from the number of gifts given. The names of the three wise men that are associated with the gifts come from church tradition perhaps some 500 years after the fact.
We have over the years called the wise men astrologers because they sought relationships between the actions of stars and the actions of mankind. But the study of stars and their motions then was the beginning of astronomy and organized science. We don’t understand this and we tend to trivialize what they did.
Do these contradictions and how we arrive at the Christmas story that we have told for generations dilute or somehow weaken the message? If we focus on the message rather than the date, then I don’t believe so. But it does require that we do what we have been asked to do from the very beginning of our faith journey and that is grow in the faith, if for no other reason than to better be able to tell the story to the next generation.
When you study the story, when you put it into the context of time and place, the message that Jesus will preach when He does begin His ministry becomes clearer. The problem today is that we do want to do this. We have heard the same story for so many years that we have accepted it as it is. It results a terrible misunderstanding of the story and what transpired.
The true gift of Christmas is in the story but we have lost that gift because we do understand the message and we are more wrapped up in what we get from others, not what we get from the Christ Child.
We know that the first announcement of the birth of the Christ Child was made to the shepherds but we fail to understand the significance of that announcement. Perhaps because we so often will refer to Jesus as the Good Shepherd, we think that is why the shepherds were the first to be told.
But what many don’t know is that shepherds were social outcasts, perhaps in part because of Biblical laws stated in the Old Testament and partially because their work in the fields left them dirty and smelly, far more than normal.
To announce to the lowest of society that a Savior was born was to say that all would be welcome in God’s Kingdom. Throughout His ministry Jesus took down the walls that society had erected between people. It began with His birth and the announcement to the shepherds. And yet, how many people in church cringe at the thought of homeless people and other outcasts being allowed into the church today?
The wise men who sought the Christ Child saw signs in the world that suggested something was about to happen. It was this curiosity and desire to seek new knowledge that drove them to leave the safety and comfort of their home and journey to a distant land.
But the inclusion of the wise men is more than just about gifts for a baby who would be a king; it was a statement that we must seek the Christ Child with all our resources. One of the gifts that we receive on Christmas is knowledge, knowledge about the world around us as well as knowledge about God. The passage from Isaiah speaks of the wonders of God; we cannot see the wonders of God if we do not look at the world around us. The wise men that came were scientists more than astrologers; they sought God in His works.
But we live in a world today that says that you either believe in science or you believe in religion but you cannot believe in both. Christ’s birth was a statement that knowledge was important; yet we seem today determine to limit the spread of knowledge in fear that it will destroy us.
Too many people today want religion to limit the boundaries of both society and the mind. Too many people use religion as an instrument of fear. And combined with political power, this fear is a very powerful tool.
Herod feared the Christ Child and we know what he did. The shepherds were fearful when the angels first told them of the Savior’s birth. But they overcame that fear and saw firsthand that hope had been born in a manger in a stable in Bethlehem. The wise men journey to an unknown land; surely they must have been afraid at times about having made that decision to travel so far. But they made the journey and beheld the wonders of the Christ Child. And they choose to travel a different direction home because of the knowledge that they have gained during that trip.
On Christmas, we are given the gift of freedom. It is a gift that goes beyond the walls of society and extends the limits of the mind. In accepting Christ as your Savior, you are given that gift. In allowing the Holy Spirit you can use this gift. The call today is to seek this gift, the birth of the Christ Child, and then use this gift so that others can find it to.