Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Strategy for Christmas

The United States is Christmas crazy. I mean that literally. You have heard the Christmas carol Twelve Days of Christmas, but the actual statistics state that the official Christmas season is five weeks long! Twelve days of Christmas times three (almost). Retailers depend on Christmas sales to make a profit for the year, and they start to decorate and promote Christmas items before Thanksgiving. Many people depend on seasonal Christmas jobs to augment their income and make ends’ meet. Tragically, there have even been fatalities surrounding Christmas, as just this year on Long Island a Wal-Mart worker was trampled to death by early-bird shoppers. Our culture is Christmas crazy!

We should not have an ad hoc mentality when it comes to Christmas, blindly going with the flow and taking what’s easy instead of thinking ahead and devising strategies for action and engagement with the culture. As Christians we should think things through and be prepared for what may even seem routine – like Christmas. If I was to ask you, “Are you ready for Christmas?” Would you immediately think of…
  • Christmas shopping
  • Christmas decorations
  • Christmas cards
  • Christmas baking
  • Christmas travel plans
  • Christmas parties

There is certainly a sense in which all of those things factor into our preparedness for the Christmas event, but they are only a part of Christmas and by no means the most important part. Instead of all the above, are you prepared to ensure that your family, friends, and co-workers understand that Jesus Christ is indeed “the reason for the season”? We need to have a strategy for Christmas, and the strategy must go beyond presents, pictures, pageants, and parties.

I may be the first person to have ever suggested that you formulate a Christmas strategy; at least one that doesn’t involve the usual fare. I encourage this for a simple reason. Have you ever wanted to take advantage of the Christmas holiday to talk with family about the real meaning of Christmas or maybe to speak with a friend about the season’s reason, but before you realize it you’re cleaning up wrapping paper on December 26th and thinking to yourself, “I can’t believe it’s already over?!” That is why we should think this through before it’s over. That is why we should have a Christmas strategy. It’s good to have a plan.

Should we celebrate Christmas?

Perhaps your Christmas strategy is to have no Christmas at all! Many of this nation’s founding families were Puritans, and they refused to celebrate Christmas. It would be difficult to find more orthodox believers than the Puritans. While I certainly do not agree with all of their theological positions or some of their legislative policies, I would be hard-pressed to find another group of people who dearly loved the Lord and desired to honor Him. Don’t believe all the caricatures and stereotypes about the Puritans. If your only exposure to the Puritans is The Scarlet Letter then you’re misinformed. If the name Puritans can only conjure up images of prudish, boorish, modern-day hypocrites and witch trials then you have been duped. There is much more to the Puritans than all of that, and much to imitate. Should canceling Christmas be one thing in which they are imitated?

The Puritans’ refusal to celebrate Christmas may be distilled down to a couple of reasons. First, they felt the holiday had fallen into abuse. Instead of being a day that was devoted to Christ and Christian celebration it had become a day of wanton partying. The day had become associated with drinking, reveling, and its focus had shifted from the Savior to only merriment, and usually corrupt merriment. Everything but Christ was emphasized, so the Puritans abandoned Christmas.


The second reason is that they considered it wrong to celebrate and emphasize Christ’s incarnation only once a year, as opposed to having that marvelous truth before our eyes throughout the year. As Christians, the Puritans argued, the glorious truth of God being made flesh so that He might die on the cross as atonement for sins should not be reserved for acclaim in only December; instead it should be commemorated year round.


I don’t think we should dismiss the Puritans’ reasoning as quickly as some may like to do, because the holiday is less of a “holy day” and more of a “time off of work so let’s have a good time day.” I agree with the Puritans on both counts. I think it is inarguable that Christmas is abused, by non-believers and believers alike. The day is used as an excuse to party, be greedy, or get charge happy. Even for those who don’t get drunk, are not greedy, and who don’t get (too) charge happy, the celebration has less to do with Christ and more to do with “the season” or the “spirit” of Christmas (and that isn’t a reference to the Holy Ghost). Christmas is seen as a time to feel good about yourself, your neighbors, family, anything and everything but Jesus Christ being made flesh. This is a theologically rich holiday, but the theology is either left out or given scant time, while Santa, snow, presents, and “Christmas spirit” are the primary focus.


This ought not to be, but while I agree with the Puritans’ reasoning I do not agree with their strategy to just call the whole thing off.


How then should we celebrate Christmas?


If we are going to celebrate this holy day, how should we do it?


We Must Celebrate Christmas with Honesty


We should start with honesty, and in so doing we should honestly admit that there is no good reason (that means Biblical reason) for exchanging gifts at Christmas. There is no Biblical reason why celebrating Christmas must involve a decorated tree, concerts, plays, or people traveling all across the state, country, or globe just to be together on the 25th of December.


Now, before you label me as the ultimate Grinch, let it be known that the giving of gifts, the decorating of trees, and the assembling of families, even over great distances, are all truly wonderful traditions which I thoroughly enjoy. But if your Christmas celebration is dependent on any or all of those things then you need a new strategy.


Honestly, what we have done as Christians is combined the celebration of Christ’s birth with an entire season of consumerism, commercialism, and just plain busyness. This is often one of the most hectic and crazy periods of the year, with families running in all different directions to make it to every concert, cantata, office party, and so on, that many people feel relieved when the 26th comes around.


This ought not to be.


We Must Distinguish Fact from Fiction


A second stoke in our wheel of strategy should be the distinguishing of fact from fiction. It isn’t uncommon for people, including Christians, to know so little about Christmas, or to at least have quite a lot of fiction mixed in with the facts. Where do we arrive at the facts? From Scripture! It is a sad state of events when the story of Christ’s birth – not only the story about the baby in the manger but the Man on the cross – becomes lost in the shuffle of wise men, gifts, drummer boys, elves, Santa Claus, flying reindeer, and the rest. That must not be allowed in Christian homes or in our churches!


A lot of fiction swirls around the wise men. The fiction starts with there number. We don’t know that only three Magi came to worship Jesus, and we definitely don’t know that their names were Balthazar, Melchior, and Gaspar. We don’t know that they visited Jesus on the night of His birth. In fact, the text clearly shows that they were not there on that holy night.


Here are the Biblical facts, and those are the only ones we can and should trust. We know for sure that Magi from the east – most likely Persia, modern day Iran – came to Jerusalem in search of the nearly born King of Jews. We know that this troubled the already paranoid Herod, and that, after counseling with his religious cohort, he sent the wise men off to Bethlehem. We know that when they arrived in Bethlehem Jesus and His family were not in a stable or an inn but in a “house”, and that Matthew refers to Him as a “young child” not a babe in swaddling clothes as Luke does when he recounts the holy night of Jesus’ birth. We do know that the wise men brought costly gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh because that is what one does when he visits the king. He brings gifts. We know that they worshiped the Christ-child, and that is fact which we should emulate. (Matthew 2:1-12)

We are quick to say, “The wise men gave Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh, so I’m giving you this fruit cake.” Instead of that, we should be as aware as they were, and worship the one who was born King of the Jews, the one who was born to “save his people from their sins.”


Here is another fiction: the innkeeper was a cold-hearted miser who said “NO!” to a needy family. We don’t know anything about the innkeeper. We don’t even know if there was an innkeeper. It’s not like the owner of the Holiday Inn refused shelter to Joseph and Mary. There have been countless sermons and not a few songs about this heartless, money-grubbing, hell-bound innkeeper, who was probably the father of Barabbas, yet all we know is that “She brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7) That is all we know!


We should be careful with the songs we sing, not only at Christmas but at all times, but it seems like artists take quite a few liberties during Christmas. Not long ago I heard a song called The One I’m Dying For, which is written from the supposed perspective of Barabbas after learning that he will be released and Jesus will be executed. Now, it is true that Jesus died for Barabbas, but that is where the theological/Biblical truthfulness of the song ends. Some of the lines are pure fiction. Here's what I mean:
“I caught the eye of a man who was beaten – I saw the truth, even I believed Him – I hear them cry, “Release Barabbas!” – In disbelief I turned to Jesus – He looked at me and He said go free, you’re the one I’m dying for.”
Those are very touching, sentimental words, and when accompanied by a stirring video one can be easily moved. There is just one problem. It’s all fiction. All we know about Barabbas is that he was scheduled to be executed, but in their diabolical bloodlust the Pharisees whipped up the crowd to beg for his release so that Jesus may be crucified in his place. That’s all we know. We don’t need to make up that stuff to proclaim the truth of salvation, and we shouldn’t.

We have to separate fact from fiction.


We Must Think about the Details


It’s been said that “the devil is in the details.” Maybe he is. I’m certain that God is, and I know that we should be, especially as we devise a Christmas strategy. We have to think about the details concerning gifts. I love exchanging gifts at Christmas. Buying someone an anniversary or birthday gift is nice; just as a house-warming, new-baby, or retirement gifts are fun, but those all pale in comparison to Christmas gifts. I enjoy to Christmas shop; at the physical as well as virtual stores. I like to wrap gifts, place them under a tree, and watch them be opened. That is a wonderful tradition, and I believe that it is so enjoyable to exchange gifts at Christmas because of how much we’ve been given. That doesn’t mean that a neck-tie or a gift card is comparable to God’s gift of Christ, but it does make me want to be giving; hopefully not just on the 25th of December. So I do not think it sacrilegious to exchange gifts at Christmas.

I do think it is immoral to be greedy; even if you’re “greedy” on others’ behalf. Before you buy your first gift, plan out how much you should spend. Notice I said “should” and not “want.” You may be able to afford spending as much as you want, but that may be more than you should. Christmas is not like winning the lottery, so plan and shop accordingly.


We Must Celebrate Christmas Evangelistically


December should not be the only time in which you talk with your family, friends, and co-workers about Jesus Christ, but Christmas affords us a golden opportunity to speak about Christ with folks who would easily tune you out the other eleven months of the year. Without doubt Christmas is over-commercialized. No question that the big-boned, bearded gentleman from the North Pole receives the lion’s share of the press during Christmas, but it is still Christmas, not Clausmas! What a wonderful opportunity to praise God for Christ, to magnify the name of Jesus, to declare
“Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us” (Matthew 1:23).
And why is God with us? As the angel told Joseph:
“She shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21)
.
How shall He save His people from their sins?
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved…For the wages of sin [is] death; but the gift of God [is] eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (John 3:16-17; Romans 6:23).
You see, it’s impossible to honestly speak about Christ’s birth without also speaking about His death. As remarkable as His birth was, His death, burial, and resurrection are just as fantastic.


Explain to people, starting with your kids if you have any, why Christmas should be celebrated, and that you celebrate the wonderful truth of the incarnation year-round!

We Must Honor and Glorify Christ

“Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31); that includes who we celebrate Christmas. I’ve saved this for last, because we have to follow the other strategic points if we are to glorify and honor Christ at Christmas. We must honestly celebrate this holy day. Christmas does not depend on the pageantry. All of that stuff has its place, but it is not of primary importance. We must separate fact from fiction. The Bible is our guide to truth, including truth about Christmas. We don’t need to be sappy to make Christmas special; it is already that, so let’s stick to the factual story and leave the fiction out of the celebration. Think about the details. How much should you spend, and on what should you spend it? How much time should you devote to concerts, cantatas, plays, and parties? How far should you travel, if at all? If you don’t think through the details, then you will drown in them. We must celebrate Christmas evangelistically. Don’t forsake this perfect opportunity to proclaim the Gospel. If we do all of that I believe we will honor and glorify Christ at Christmas.

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