Over the past several Sundays, we have been focusing on the theme of “Reclaiming Christmas.” This theme might remind you of some other similar sayings we hear around this time of year like, “Jesus is the reason for the season” and “Keep Christ in Christmas.”
Some Christians get really bent out of shape with the person working the cash register who tells her customers, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” I really think we need to cut these cashiers some slack because the word “holiday” literally means “holy day” anyway.
They may think they’re being politically correct, but we know better, right? So let’s just keep this our little secret. By reclaiming Christmas, I don’t mean that we should rebuke cashiers for simply doing what they’ve been trained to do.
It also doesn’t mean that we need to get too worried when people write out the short-hand, “X-mas” instead of the full word, “Christmas.”
Christians have been calling it “X-mas” for the past several centuries. The letter “X” is a symbol of the first letter of the Greek word for “Christ.” So actually, anyone who spells out “Christmas” as “X-mas” is including “Christ” in “Christmas” even if they don’t realize it. Again, let’s just keep this our little secret.
If the phrase, “reclaiming Christmas” isn’t just about reacting against political correctness, then what does this phrase really mean for us as we gather for this “X-mas Eve service?”
Christmas is one of those holidays where we can easily lose sight of its true meaning. This is why it’s an tradition in the church to read and hear the nativity story as told by St. Luke.
“Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” Wait a minute. That’s not it. Here it is.
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” And so, this is how the Christmas story begins. It begins with a reminder to file your tax return.
Now, let’s be clear. This was NOT the Roman Empire’s way of offering a friendly reminder to take advantage of any end of year tax breaks. With Rome, there were no tax extensions, not even for women who were nine months pregnant and who lived a hundred miles from the nearest tax billing office.
Reclaiming Christmas is to remember that like Mary and Joseph, we are called to live our faith in the real world of tax deadlines, politics, and untimely business trips. It would be nice if our faith could be lived under ideal situations where everything goes as planned. It doesn’t always work that way. In fact, it often doesn’t. What is that famous quote? If you want God to laugh, just tell him your plans.
As I think back on my pastoral years of ministry, I can think of many times that God has probably laughed at my carefully laid out plans. You know, we pastors have this utopian picture in our minds of how we want things to go for a worship service or an event in the church.
Here’s just one example among many of when things didn’t go as planned. This happened five and half years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday.
It was my first Mother’s Day Sunday in my new church. It was also confirmation Sunday when about twenty 7th graders were being received into church membership that morning. The sanctuary was packed with church members, mothers, our 7th grade confirmands and their families.
Since this was my first year at that church, I was still trying to impress my new congregation with my outstanding pastoral abilities. I remember working extra hard on the sermon for that special Sunday. For pastors, we need to really hit it out of the park on Mother’s Day, Easter, and Christmas Eve, pretty much in that order.
I had my Mother’s Day sermon all ready to go.
· Emotional story about my mother. Check.
· Encouraging story of faith for our confirmands. Check.
· Powerful ending to make it memorable. Check.
It really felt like it was going to be a special day. My new church was going to be so impressed!
After I confirmed all of those confirmands, it was finally time for me to deliver my carefully crafted sermon. As I started to speak, I remember becoming extremely light headed, and that’s the last thing I remember before I fainted in front of everyone.
A church member who was in worship that day would later tell me that in a matter of seconds, my face had turned yellow. Some said it was more greenish. Either way, not good.
As I was being helped out of the sanctuary in the middle of that worship service, I remember one of the 7th grade confirmands who was sitting in the first pew blurt out, “Is he dead?”
So those were pretty much the highlights from that big Sunday in my new church. Needless to say, it didn’t exactly go as I had planned.
You know, that’s just the way it is with our faith sometimes. In fact, that’s often the way it is with our faith. We don’t always know the challenges and the adversities that are going to come our way. Sometimes, we wonder if we can handle all that life might throw our way.
This was the situation Mary and Joseph faced in Luke’s telling of the Christmas story. I’m pretty sure that when Mary and Joseph were planning for their baby to be born, that they weren’t thinking about making a very inconvenient one hundred mile trip to pay taxes or having their baby be born in a feed trough because no rooms would be available at the hotel.
It’s smart to plan ahead and prepare as much as we can, as long as we realize that there will be some detours along the way. Reclaiming Christmas is about trusting in God, especially during those times when things don’t go as expected. God promises to be with us through all of the ups and downs of life.
There’s a wonderful verse in the bible that says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
That’s a great verse to memorize as we seek to reclaim Christmas and live out our faith this coming year. “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
After we blow out our candles and the last verse of “Joy to the World” is sung, know that God promises to go with you and will never leave or forsake you even as we live in the real world.
Yes, we will face unexpected challenges and adversities in the midst of our carefully laid out plans, but always remember that, “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
To reclaim Christmas means to remember that just like Mary and Joseph, we are called to trust in God especially as we face unforeseen challenges that may come our way, and they will come. That’s life.
There’s another wonderful thing for us to remember about Luke’s telling of the Christmas story. Not only does it remind us that we are called to trust in God as we live out our faith in the real world. It also reminds us that the good news of Christmas offers us great joy and transformation.
I love the part about the shepherds in the Christmas story. The shepherds were the first people to hear of the good news of Christ’s birth. Here they were, out in the fields doing their job of tending sheep when they encountered something that would change their lives forever.
Angels appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them and announced the good news of Christ’s birth. The angels announced that this was wonderful and joyous news for all people.
“For all people” is an important phrase to remember because the shepherds were not known to be religious people. They were considered outsiders and yet God chose to first announce the good news of Christ’s birth to them.
After going to Bethlehem to confirm what they had been told by the angels, Luke tells us that they then returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Reclaiming Christmas means that the good news of Christ’s birth will not leave us the same. It will transform us. It will lead us to praise God.
There are signs of reclaiming Christmas all around us. I was having a conversation with a pastor of a small little country church that had been struggling to keep its doors open. The pastor is retired, but has been serving this church part-time over the past seven or eight years.
A couple of years ago, he was getting really discouraged because the church hadn’t baptized anyone or received anyone into membership over the past several years. He began to think that maybe it was time for him to retire once and for all.
He decided to send a letter to his small congregation that expressed his feelings that maybe he wasn’t the right pastor for their church. He explained that they weren’t reaching people for Christ and that maybe it was time for a pastoral change even though he enjoyed preaching.
So I asked him, “So what happened? How did they respond?” With a surprised look in his face he said, “Believe it or not, that one letter has ignited a revival in my little church. Since that letter, I have baptized three adults, a baby, received five new members into the church, and the people are wanting to share their faith with others and they’re starting to reach out.”
After he shared this with me, he shook his head in disbelief and said, “So much for my retirement plans!”
Reclaiming Christmas means that we join the shepherds in a revival of transformation that will not only transform our lives but will have a ripple effect on the people around us.
This past August when Christmas was the last thing on my mind because it was in the mid 90s with high humidity, one of our members, Jan Miller-Fox, invited me to visit a newly built Habitat for Humanity house in nearby Amesville. This was a house that our church, along with other area churches helped to build for a family of six. While we were there, the person from Habitat told us that they wanted to build another house next door.
As Jan and I were standing on the site of where they wanted this new house to be built, and with sweat running down our faces in the stifling heat, believe it or not, I started to think about Christmas. I said to Jan,
“What do you think if we have our church go all out to help make this 2nd house a reality? What if instead of giving $2,000 like we did for this house, we would give three times that amount or even more?!”
This is what this year’s Christmas is all about. This year, we are reclaiming Christmas because it’s not about us. It’s about Jesus and helping a family in great need to have their own home.
Like the angels in the Christmas story, I have some good news of great joy to share with you tonight! Friends as of tonight, we have already received $4,500 to go toward this new Habitat for Humanity home.
Every time we are generous in sharing God’s love with our community and world, we are reclaiming Christmas. And that’s worth celebrating!
As we leave from this place tonight and go back to the fields to tend our flocks, may the good news of Christ’s birth lead us to glorify and praise God, just like the shepherds did so long ago.