Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Day
Isaiah 62:6-12
Psalm 97
Titus 3:4-7
Luke 2:[1-7], 8-20.

And they shall call them The holy people, The redeemed of Jehovah: and thou shalt be called Sought out, A city not forsaken.

Christmas on a Sunday gives us a unique challenge, one that we only have to face every seven years, give or take. The last Sunday Christmas was six years ago, on a Sunday in year B. For that Midweek Oasis I used the other recommended text for the occasion (Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4 [5-12]; John 1:1-14), and for that reason I chose the other texts this year. If you want to read what I wrote six years ago, you can find it at https://www.angelfire.com/ak3/dailyword/oasis_december25_2005.html.

The real challenge for those planning Christmas worship is the question of what to do. Do you make this service unique because it is such a special day, or do you follow the usual worship liturgy? The advantage to something distinctive is that the people who might have stayed home because it is Christmas might attend for a worship filled with carols and lessons after the season of Advent hymns. On the other hand, Christmas Day is an opportunity to remind those Christmas and Easter Christians why we gather together around Word and Sacrament. Some churches have even questioned whether or not to have worship on Sunday, since theyíve put so much time and energy into Christmas Eve services. Do we need both, even though it is a Sunday? If you have it, will they come? These are all challenging questions. To some, they are easily answered; to others, the choice is more difficult. It depends on the community. It might seem shocking that a church would choose to remain closed on a Sunday, even if they had worship just hours before, but for some communities, especially those in the country, that is often the best choice.

The third set of scriptures provided for this time are those generally used on Christmas Eve (Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14, [15-20].) The texts Iíve chosen have given me a perspective that is counter to what many are saying these days and yet may be just what we need to hear in these strange and sometimes dangerous times.

What I find interesting this year is that many people are fighting tooth and nail (or at least words) this year to keep Christ in Christmas. I can hear the rebellion in peopleís voices when they say ďMerry ChristmasĒ at the check-out at the superstore. I see people vocally offended when someone uses another phrase like Seasons Greetings or Happy Holidays, even when it is appropriate to the moment. We are, after all, in the midst of a season of holidays, not just those of other religions, but also holidays that are more secular. Thanksgiving, New Years are holidays worth sharing a wish of good cheer. Even Epiphany is worth remembering.

I saw a Facebook post from the local professional soccer team a few weeks ago; one of their cheerleaders made a visit to the childrenís hospital. The caption said that she went to the hospital to spread some holiday cheer. Several people posted that the caption should have said that she went to spread Christmas cheer, rejecting the idea that she is there to cheer all the children, not just those who celebrate Christmas. Yes, we have to be bold enough to say the words, to openly praise God for His great gift and to live Christ-like in this world. But we also have to be gracious. Is it the word that matters? Or the heart?

I get it. So many have been so brazen with the demand that we take everything Christian out of the holidays that the only way we know how to fight it is to be just as brazen. If someone will demand we donít say it, then weíll demand that they do. I love Christmas, and I love Jesus, but I celebrate the holidays. This season is about so much: Jesus, generosity, family, hope. It is about Thanksgiving and New beginnings. It is about light and peace. The whole season, in my opinion, is holy. Happy Holidays means Happy Holy-days. We donít have to confine God to the celebration of Christmas Day when we can worship Him through so many other celebrations.

What I want to know is this: will those who are being so brazen with their demand for a Merry Christmas be in church on Christmas Day? Will they even be there on Christmas Eve? Will they gather with other Christians to celebrate the birth and worship God? Are they living the Christ-like life every day? Are they being gracious? Are they sharing the story of Jesus? Are they calling people to repentance and to faith? Are they being witnesses for Christ or are they simply demanding words that make them feel better? Do we really think God cares how we are greeting each other at the superstore check-out when there are so many other words we should be saying and things we should be doing?

We make a big deal about making Christmas a public holiday, and there might be good reason to do so since most people in our nation consider themselves Christian. And yet, Christmas is really a very personal, private experience. Who knew Jesus was born that night? Shepherds in a field heard the news from angels; a few people in Bethlehem heard it from them. We donít hear about it in the text for today, but we know that some wise men saw a star. Joseph and Mary were there, and perhaps someone to help them through the birth. An innkeeper was nearby, and others in the inn would have heard that a baby was born, but did any of them actually know what was happening? Children are born every day. It was an intimate encounter with people who believe, not a global revealing of Christ. As a matter of fact, instead of making Christmas the day to share Christ with the world, we should be celebrating Epiphany with that sort of gusto! Do any of those who are fighting for that Merry Christmas even know about Epiphany?

The Old Testament lesson is a promise for a very specific people: Godís people. They have been exiled, oppressed, burdened by foreigners. They thought God had abandoned them. But in this text, they are returning to Jerusalem. They have been set free. They have been restored to their homeland. They have been saved. Now God is promising that they will no longer toil for others; they will benefit from their own work. They will not have to carry otherís burdens; He will give them rest. The text is a comfort to Godís people; their enemies are left out and rejected. This text promises that Godís people will see their Savior and receive the reward of faith; they will be called the Holy People and the Redeemed of the Lord. This is not a promise that the world will be saved, but that the faithful will.

Yes, Christmas is the beginning of something great that will transform the whole world, but perhaps for a moment we can realize that Christmas was a silent, even lonely night. The world did not know what was happening. They did not see the baby. They did not believe that a Savior had come. Christ did come for the whole world, but Christmas is for the faithful. It is for those who see the baby in the manger and know that He is the King.

I just read an interesting little story by Gordon Atkinson called ďA Christmas Story Youíve Never Heard.Ē He has taken the meager details we have been given in the story according to Luke and added some of his own details. He has added reasons why Mary might have gone to Bethlehem with Joseph even though she would not have been required to be there, and why they might have ended up in a strangerís house even though Joseph would have had family in town. He adds the pain and fear and confusion that the characters must have experienced, including the shepherds who were not eloquent or bright. He shows Mary in the pains of childbirth and introduces us to some of those people who we do not meet in Luke but know must have been there.

In Mr. Atkinsonís story, Mary and Joseph are alone. Theyíve been rejected by family, friends and strangers. They are penniless, hungry and homeless. They are in desperate need and left with only one choice: to pray. Then we see Godís hand in the midst of their struggle as God provides comfort, healing and peace. We like to whitewash the Christmas story, hiding the reality to make it as palatable as possible. We want to make it a story that the world will love. But God has given us this story to help us see that in the worst circumstances, He has not abandoned us. When we think there is no hope, we can know there is hope. We can see Him at work in humble but extraordinary ways. Thatís a promise for believers, not for non-believers.

Perhaps those who demand that we wish everyone a Merry Christmas believe that they are doing something good for God. To them it is a good work to remind people the reason for the season. In some ways it is, because the world certainly does need to know that Jesus came to save them. Yet, this seems to have become more than a way of witnessing for Christ, and it is often done without grace and faith. The act is no longer one of evangelism but one of passion and selfishness. They think they have to do it if they are Christian and that God will bless them because they have fought so well for Him.

Paul reminds us in the letter to Titus that God does not save us because of our good works. The chapter begins with a list of things that we should do: obey rulers, do good works, do not speak evil of your neighbor, donít fight. Be gentle and merciful to all people. Titus is asked to remind the Christian community that they were once non-believers, too. But then Paul tells Titus why they should do those things. It isnít about getting Godís blessing, it is about responding to the blessing God first gave to us. He saved us not because we deserve it but because He loves us. We are faithful because He is faithful. We have been given grace so that we might share it with others. The gift is given to those who believe, to those who will receive it. If they are not ready to wish us a Merry Christmas, then our job is not to demand the words but to share the Gospel so that they will hear and experience the mercy of God.

God is King over all the earth and Jesus came to be its Savior, but to me the texts of this Christmas remind me that the event in the stable was not for the world. It was an intimate moment given to those who trust in His promises. It is a reminder to us that many did not see Him arrive, that it was a silent and lonely night. But as we quietly worship the baby who will be King, we are encouraged by the shepherds to go out into the night and tell others what we have seen. As we receive this gift, given to the faithful, we are sent out into the world to share Godís promises with others. Then, as they come to trust in those promises, to see the fulfillment in Christ Jesus, they will experience the gift with us next year as we gather around that manger.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas, but I also wish you greetings for this season and Happy Holy-days. That baby did not come for just one special day a year; He came to fulfill the promises of God. He came to dwell amongst us so that weíll never feel abandoned and alone. He came to redeem His people. He came to make us a Holy people. He has reached so many more than just those who believed on that first Christmas day, but we will see that as His story continues to unfold before us day by day. Whatever happens on Sunday, whoever goes to church or not, let us all remember that Christmas is just the beginning of a story that we are called to share all the year through.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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