Over the next 3 weeks nearly everyone will be talking about Christmas. Schools will close and stores will stay open longer as everyone makes plans to celebrate the most widely observed holiday on our calendar.
Of course, for many (perhaps most) Americans, Christmas is simply an excuse to spend money they don’t have on toys they don’t need and to do it all under the guise of observing a religious holiday.
In some ways there is a great deal of irony associated with Christmas. Think about it. Our society still regards Christmas as a very religious day and many people who rarely, if ever go to church, will make a point to attend some kind of religious service in connection with the holiday.
But, nowhere has God instructed us to celebrate the birth of Jesus on an annual basis. The irony is that millions of people will erroneously think that they are doing something that pleases God by entering into a celebration which He has not commanded.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not among those who think that celebrating the birth of Jesus is sinful because the Bible doesn’t command it. I believe that Christians can observe the birth of their King in a way that honors God. There certainly was a celebrative announcement of His birth by the heavenly host two thousand years ago.
But, we must not fall into the trap of thinking that we can blatantly disregard what God has clearly called us to be and do for 364 days a year and then somehow, by celebrating one holiday which He has not commanded us to observe, we can thereby gain His favor. There is the tragic irony of typical American thinking about Christmas.
It is also ironic the way that most Americans go about celebrating Christmas. Let’s be honest, for most of us in the USA, Christmas has become an excuse to imbibe the spirit of covetousness that lives within us all. The most blatant displays of materialism in our culture are centered around Christmas.
Don’t you find that ironic? Jesus, whose birth we celebrate, gave up all the wealth He enjoyed as the eternal Son of God, and impoverished Himself in order to become a man. He didn’t have a home to call His own; He had to be loaned a boat from which to preach, and when it came time for Him to die, He had to be buried in a borrowed tomb.
Jesus said that life is not found in number of possessions that you own. He told us not to lay up treasures for ourselves on earth, but in heaven. Yet, the holiday that celebrates His birth provides the most consumeristic, materialistic season of the year. It’s ironic.
Again, please don’t misunderstand me. There is nothing sinful about giving or receiving gifts. But there is a real danger that comes from focusing too much on the gifts that are given or received.
Many of us are very aware of this. We feel the tension. Parents of young children especially feel it. Their kids see the TV commercials, read the newspaper advertisements and see the billboards and store displays. They know that XBox is the hottest new video game system on the market. The pressure of our consumeristic culture combined with the passions of children who have been inundated by multi-million dollar ad campaigns that target them often prod parents, even Christian parents, to cave into the into the materialism of our age…because it’s Christmas!
We must be diligent not to fall into this trap of regarding the birth of Christ more as consumers than Christians. One of the best ways that I know to do this is to take the opportunity to ask the question, “Why Christmas?” This is a great approach to take with the children in our homes and neighborhoods and, in the right context, it can lead to evangelistic conversations with adults, as well. Try to get people to think beyond the holiday to that which occasions it. “What’s behind all the manger scenes and Christmas carols?” “Where did they come from?”
Even in our post-modern, post-Christian society there is a good possibility that your conversation partner will bring up the name of Jesus. If he doesn’t then you can and you can push the question toward the evangelistic bull’s eye: “Why was Jesus born?” “Why did God do it?”
The Apostle Paul gives us a one sentence answer to this question in 1 Timothy 1:15, and it is a sentence worth memorizing. In 25 English words he gives us a wonderful summary of everything the Bible has to say about the mission and purpose of Jesus Christ. As we enter into the Christmas season, this sentence can particularly become a great tool not only to help us in our witnessing but also to rescue us as we feel ourselves being drawn into the craziness and busyness of the next few weeks, Materialism cannot abide long where fresh thoughts of the incarnation and atonement live.
“This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”
Thomas Bilney was one of the first Reformation martyrs in 16th century England. In 1520 he enrolled at Cambridge where he studied church law. As an ardent Roman Catholic, he repeatedly sought out a priest to hear his confession and to seek forgiveness. But none of his studies brought him peace. Known as “little Bilney” because he was short, one day, against the orders of church officials, he purchased a Latin translation of Erasmus’s Greek New Testament. And behind locked doors, out of fear of being caught, he began to read. Soon he came across these words of Paul to Timothy. Listen to his description of what happened:
I chanced upon this sentence of St. Paul (O most sweet and comfortable sentence to my soul!) in 1 Timothy 1. “It is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be embraced, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am the chief….” This one sentence, through God’s instruction and inward working … did so exhilarate my heart, being before wounded with the guilt of my sins, and being almost in despair, that even immediately I seemed unto myself inwardly to feel a marvellous comfort and quietness, insomuch that “my bruised bones leaped for joy” (Psalm 52). After this, the Scripture began to be more pleasant unto me than the honey or the honey-comb. (from Foxe’s Acts & Monuments).
Bilney became a leader of a group of theologians who met at the famous White Horse Inn in Cambridge and who gave themselves to advancing the cause of the Reformation in England. He was ultimately arrested and burned at the stake as a heretic in 1531. In the good news of this one verse, he discovered something that so utterly transformed his life that he was willing to die for it.
It made his “bones leap for joy.” Now that’s what I call the Christmas spirit!