Scripture: Luke 3:1-16
I do not remember how old I was, but I was in the basement of Milan United Methodist Church so it had to be while I was in elementary school. Since it was close to Christmas the children’s church plans that day was to sing Christmas songs. We had just sung “We Three Kings”, which at the time was my favorite Christmas song. The next song was Jingle Bells, and after we all sang about dashing through the snow and yelling “Hey!” as loud as we could, I asked the teacher “How is that a Christmas song?”
I do not remember the teacher’s exact response, but I think it was some variations of “Just because it is.” In Jingle Bells, there is no mention of Jesus, shepherds, or angels. There is not even a reference to Santa Claus or Christmas trees. It stuck out to me then that while fun to sing, really has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas. In that regard, Jingle Bells is in good company when it comes to things we associate with Christmas.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go. But when you really look at it a lot of the trappings that make us think of Christmas have very little to do with the birth of a baby in Bethlehem. For instance, snowmen are an extremely common Christmas decoration, which honestly is a little odd. It is not like there was a snowman at the manger for the birth of Jesus. In fact, we can say with near absolute certainty that there was not any snow anywhere around Bethlehem when Jesus was born. Snowmen are popular today, because in 1950 the song Frosty the Snowman was released as a character driven song to follow up on the success of 1949’s Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Another example is it is not uncommon to see nutcracker soldiers as Christmas decorations. That has mostly endured because of the Nutcracker, a ballet that’s only connection with Christmas is that its odd story starts on Christmas Eve. The ballet and nutcrackers in general have very little to do with Christmas.
There are so many songs, images, and traditions that we associate with Christmas that have no real connection with the birth of Jesus. The reality is that when it comes to this holiday, there are really two things going on. There is Christian Christmas and there is a cultural Christmas season. To this point, if you asked a random person down at the outlet mall to tell you about the Christmas story the person is just as likely to tell you about Ralphie and a BB Gun as they are to tell you about Mary, Joseph, and a baby. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but a lot of those decorations we see in stores and songs we hear on the radio have more to do with the cultural Christmas season than it does with the real Christmas. We like to say Jesus is the reason for the season, but what does that look like? What would it look like if it began to look a lot like the real, biblical, and true Christmas? I think this morning’s scripture gives us a glimpse of that.
When it comes to the cultural Christmas season, much of it is based on anticipation. It is a month plus long build up to the big day when Santa comes and the presents wished for all revealed. It is all about the celebration of anticipation turning into dreams and hopes realized. This morning’s scripture also describes a time of great anticipation. The people of Israel were desperate for a messiah. The Old Testament prophets often contained dual prophecies for a hopeful. The first is that the people would be restored to their land from exile, and the second is that a messiah, a savior would come, to establish a righteous kingdom forever and ever. From the first century Jewish perspective, the first of these redemptive prophecies had happened. Four hundred years before the time of Jesus the Promised Land had been restored to the Israelites. The walls of the holy city and the temple had been rebuilt, but by the time of Jesus the restoration to the promise land was not like the Jewish people had envisioned it. They lived in their ancestral land and they worshipped God at the temple, but their land was occupied territory. The Jews lived in their land but the Romans ruled and taxed them. They were not free. The Jews were free to worship God, but they faced immense political and cultural pressure to relent their traditional beliefs and become more like the greater Greco-Roman culture.
This led to a surge in messianic expectation. The people anticipated that surely God, would send the Messiah. Their savior who would free them from Roman rule, and restore God’s people to a more glorious time. This is one of the reasons why John the Baptist attracted such crowds. He talked and carried himself like a prophet of old and this morning’s scripture tells us “the people were waiting expectantly and were wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the messiah.”
Of course, John himself openly acknowledged that he was not. He was quick to point out that the Messiah was coming. John’s role was to be the “voice of one calling in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord.” He fully claimed that role. He sought to get people off the crooked paths they walked in their life and onto the straight and narrow so that they would be able to see and recognize God’s salvation. He did this through the baptism he offered. The baptism John offered was a symbolic turning from sin. They entered the water sinful and re-emerged cleansed of their sin to theoretically live differently.
In this morning’s scripture John offered up what that would like. He explicitly told the people how they should turn from sin. What is interesting in this scripture is that he did not just say “stop it” but he told the people what they should do instead. The people were full of expectation awaiting a savior, and John pointed them in the right direction as to how to live that expectation out. I think John’s advice applies to us as well. Moreover, if we want to keep Christ in Christmas, if we want to remember Jesus is the reason for the season, and if we want to make it look a lot like the real Christmas then following John’s advice is EXACTLY how we do it.
In verse 11 of this morning’s scripture “John answered ‘Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.’” John emphasized that the best way to anticipate the coming of the messiah is to focus not on what we can get, but on what we can give away. This theme is reiterated when John tells the tax collectors not to collect more than they were required to. Roman tax collectors set their own rates. As long as they were in reason, they were able to charge what they wanted and they grew wealthy off the excess. This theme is again reiterated by John when address the soldiers. The poorly paid soldiers had a lot of unethical ways to make money on the side, and John encourages them to not do that do that. He encourages them to be happy with what they have instead of always seeking to want more.
I believe that John captures the true spirit of Christmas in this morning’s scripture. This kind of generosity is the true Christmas spirit, but it is also sometimes in short supply. When it comes to individual contributions to charitable causes that provide aid and help to others, the percentage dropped to only 55% of American households donated in 2017. At the same time in 2017, the average Christmas spending per household increased to $906, a record setting number. An example of how that money was spent is that last year on cyber Monday consumers spent over two billion dollars just on cell phones! This cultural Christmas holiday is full of anticipation about what we can get, but the real Christmas celebration should be all about what we can give away. The uncomfortable truth that we often seek to ignore is that commercialism and the gluttonous desire to get more stuff drives a lot of the cultural Christmas holiday. We might bury it under cheer and merriment but consumerism and the desire to acquire is at the heart of the cultural Christmas holiday.
True Christmas though, the celebration of Jesus birth, is the exact opposite. Christmas is about remembering that God the Father’s love for us is so great, that God willingly gave up that which was most precious. When we get right down to it, the fundamental difference between the cultural holiday and true Christmas is that the cultural holiday’s emphasis is on getting but the celebration of Jesus birth has an emphasis on giving. A true Christmas celebration emphasizes putting others first. Because Christmas is about celebrating Jesus. It is about celebrating the fact that God loved the world so much that he sent his son in the world. When God sent Jesus as a baby we were given the greatest gift. We were given a messiah who would grow to become the man who would offer us forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with our creator, and freedom from shame and guilt. All of this was offered to us as a gift without price, not because we deserved it, earned it, or were entitled to it. God gave the greatest gift of all because God’s love for us is so great, that God was willing to give anything so that we would realize that. This example of extravagant generosity is the true spirit of Christmas, this spirit that puts others first is what John was talking about, and it is absolutely the example we should follow.
The good news is that around here it is beginning to look a lot like Christmas, like true Christmas. As a faith community, I think we can celebrate the ways that we do emphasize giving as a way that we honor the birth of Jesus. Last month, we packed up boxes for Operation Christmas Child. Those boxes are given to children who participate in programs that provide food, education, and introduce them to the story of Jesus. Last month we also gave for the Bishop’s Christmas offering. The money that you contributed will be used to provide vital funding for ministries around Indiana that exist to meet the physical, emotional, or spiritual needs of children. This month, I know many of you have contributed or are planning on contributing to our Heifer International Christmas project. Every $120 we raise will buy a goat for a family, and those goats will made sustainable, ongoing, and life giving change for those families. Yes, friends. It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas around here, thanks be to God.
All of those examples are wonderful ways that we can emphasize giving as a way to honor and celebrate the birth of Christ. However, I challenge you to go a step further. Giving our money and resources is a great way to give, but it still connects back to the cultural holiday that emphasizes getting stuff. I challenge you to give of yourselves and invest your time. It is one thing to give money to a food pantry, but it is quite another to volunteer. On Christmas we celebrate that God loved the world so much that God reached down to meet us where we are at. So let us do the same. We probably know an elderly acquaintance who is lonely and could use a visit. Many of us probably have that one odd neighbor we avoid or the co-worker we mostly ignore. If we took the time to look around all of us could find on the periphery of our lives the lonely, the lost, the broken, and the forgotten. I challenge you to find those people and reach out to them, like God reached out to us. Through your actions and the way you give yourself may you communicate to them you are not alone, you are not forgotten, and are seen, and there is nothing so broken that God cannot fix it. This year may you celebrate Christmas by loving others the way that God loves us.
If we are intentional in doing that then we will live out the prophecy from Isaiah that John proclaimed. We will prepare the way for the Lord, making straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all the people will see God’s salvation.” In other words, It will begin to look a lot like Christmas, the true Christmas, everywhere you go.