“Merry Christmas”, NOT “Happy Holidays”
December 4, 2016 Sermon (2nd Sunday in Advent)
12 Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
28 Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
“Merry Christmas”, NOT “Happy Holidays”
Every year, usually around the middle of November, Susan and I start shopping for Christmas cards. And every year, we find the same thing:
- Cards with pictures of Christmas trees;
- Cards with pictures of Christmas ornaments and lights and other decorations;
- Cards with pictures of wintery scenes;
- Cards with pictures of snowmen and reindeer;
- Cards with pictures of Santa Claus;
- Cards with pictures of birds – seriously, birds. This year, I found penguins and owls and robins and even cardinals;
- Cards with pictures of dogs – there’s even one with a dog whose tongue is stuck to a metal pole;
- Cards with pictures of all kinds of other animals – cats, foxes, polar bears, even armadillos;
- Cards with pictures of the Grinch and the Charlie Brown Gang and the characters from other popular holiday-themed books and shows;
- And cards with all kinds of witty ways to say, in essence, “Happy Holidays”;
True, every once in awhile we find a box of cards with three wise men following a star…and I jump at these every time I see them; but then, Susan and I have our annual discussion about whether we’re looking for “Christmas cards” or “Epiphany cards”…since the wise men are, strictly speaking, part of the Epiphany story, not the Christmas story.
Discouraged, we go home and decide to write a Christmas letter, which allows us to choose our own themes and pictures. Occasionally, we still search for more cards and settle on some Epiphany cards. Very rarely, we find some cards that are about Jesus and even might include words that have something to do with why we actually celebrate this upcoming holiday called Christmas.
Given this story, and the title of the sermon being “‘Merry Christmas’, NOT ‘Happy Holidays’”, you might expect that I’m about to spend the rest of our time together on some kind of rant about how our culture needs to get its act together and start getting back to true meaning of Christmas. You might expect that I’m going to recommend things like:
- Companies using the words “Merry Christmas” in their advertising;
- Companies, retailers especially, allowing and even encouraging employees to call this holiday “Christmas”;
- Companies choosing to carry decorative merchandise for the 83% of American citizens who consider themselves Christians instead of filling aisle after aisle with inflatable Santas and snowmen and things I can’t even identify.
- Recording artists getting back to the Christmas hymns that tell the story of Christmas instead of writing new songs about Santa and Frosty and holiday relational mishaps;
You might expect that my sermon will primarily be about these kinds of things. And it would be easy to do. After all, I was just getting going there for the past few minutes. But I need to stop with the rant…because that’s NOT what this sermon is about.
In order to understand what it IS about, let’s catch up on where we are in the narrative lectionary. Last week, we took a break from the narrative lectionary and the story of the Bible for our annual Hanging of the Greens service. But before that, we encountered God’s words as delivered through the prophet Jeremiah sometime between 600BC and 586BC. The king of Babylon had invaded Judah and was besieging Judah’s capital city of Jerusalem. God told the Judeans through Jeremiah that Jerusalem and Judah would fall and the people would be exiled to a foreign land; and God said the reason is that God’s people had violated their covenant with God. BUT…God also told the Judeans that God would forgive the people and even make a new covenant with them, a covenant they could not break…and this promise gave the Judeans hope that God would return them to the Promised Land after their exile.
And, guess what? About 50 years later, God DID return them to the Promised Land.
Fast forward several hundred years. God’s people have been back in the Promised Land for a few centuries – albeit with significantly fewer numbers than before, and, if you’ve been following the story of the scriptures, it will be no surprise to hear that God’s people have fallen away from God’s desires once again. And then, a natural disaster of unprecedented proportions struck: an army of locusts unlike any seen before ate their way through the land and destroyed EVERYTHING. And through the prophet Joel, God told the Judeans that the army of locusts was a wake-up call…and that God would be sending a much more formidable army if the Judeans didn’t turn back to God.
And it’s in this portion of God’s prophecy given through Joel – right after God tells that an army much worse than the locusts is coming – that we receive the words in chapter 2, verses 12-13, our first reading for today. “Return to me,” God says. Return to me with your actions – actions are what were symbolized by the words “fasting”, “weeping”, “and mourning.” But don’t just return to me with your actions, “return to me with your whole heart…rend your hearts and not your clothing.”
Y’all, this message from God is the message of Advent; it’s the message of HOW we’re supposed to prepare for Christmas. We’re supposed to turn toward God:
- With our actions;
- With our words;
- With our whole hearts;
If that was God’s message for God’s people awaiting the Messiah’s first coming; it’s also OUR message as we await the Messiah’s second coming.
So…take a look around at your life…and your preparations to celebrate Jesus’ birth…and your preparations to anticipate Jesus’ future coming. A little earlier, I suggested I could go on a rant about American culture, about our society in general, and how others have turned Christmas into something that has little if anything to do with Jesus’ birth. But I said that’s not what this sermon is about. You see, the message of this sermon isn’t for the folks out there who don’t believe in God or that Jesus is the Messiah. God didn’t send Joel to the NON-God people; no, God sent Joel to the people who already knew. The message of returning to God as a way of properly preparing for Jesus’ coming isn’t a message for the people who never knew Jesus in the first place. It’s not a message for corporate titans, whose god is wealth or material acquisition. No, God’s message for us isn’t a rant about what all those other people in our society should be doing. It’s a message for US, we followers of Jesus, about what WE should be doing. It’s about US choosing to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” with our lives…instead of expecting everyone else to do so, instead of complaining when others choose not to.
So…when you go outside this time of year and see the streets lined with Santa and snowmen; when you go to the mall or just open your email inbox and you’re assaulted by commercialism; when you try to find some Christmas music on the radio but only hear songs about jingle bells and reindeer and presents beneath the tree…I encourage you to resist the temptation to complain about society and INSTEAD work in your own life to return to God this time of year. Instead of complaining:
- Put a nativity scene in your front yard;
- Decorate your Christmas tree with chrismons;
- Make a Jesse tree;
- Create a playlist of music celebrating Jesus’ birth and play that instead of what you find on the radio;
- Watch some movies and Christmas specials about Jesus’ birth – they’re out there – or even about things Jesus’ cared about;
- Even do yourself some of the things Jesus cared about and commanded us to do – like make sandwiches and deliver them to homeless or hungry people;
Oh, and when you do these things, SHARE them with others! Sometimes, we get stuck thinking that real change in our society, in our culture, comes about only when really powerful and influential people – like politicians and athletes and celebrities – decide to lead the charge, but that’s NOT true. If every single person in our nation who identifies as Christian (which, depending on which poll you read, is somewhere between 70% and 83% of Americans), if every follower of Jesus in our country decided to ONLY purchase or watch or listen to things that have to do with what Christmas is really about this time of year, companies and entertainers would have no choice but to follow. The reality of what’s happening in our culture – as far as moving away from God instead of toward God each Christmas – the reality of what’s happening in our culture is that WE, the Christians, have ALLOWED our focus to drift from God…and we have the power to move the focus BACK to God. It’s on us, and it’s up to us.
But that’s not the end of the message. There’s the second part of the prophecy through Joel that we read, and it has everything to do with the “why” of us taking the initiative to return to God, especially with our actions of preparation this time of year – every year – as Christmas approaches.
In order to understand this part of the prophecy, I need to provide an explanation of the way God structured some things in the days of the Old Testament. At the time when God made the conditional covenant with God’s people through Moses, God commanded the people to build the tabernacle. And within the tabernacle there was a special room called “the holy place.” And within this “holy place”, there was a veil, a big, thick curtain of a barrier to separate the “holy place” from “the most holy place”, also known as the “holy of holies”. It was in this most holy place that God chose to dwell when on earth. And there was a purpose to the construction of the room and a purpose to the barrier. God is so holy, so separate from sinful humanity, that no normal human being could survive being in God’s presence, so a barrier had to be created to protect people from the holiness of God’s presence. And only one person on the whole earth, the high priest of God’s people, could enter the most holy place, and even the high priest could do so only once each year on a specific day and with a specific ritual. Later in Israel’s history, when the temple was constructed in Jerusalem, the location of the most holy place became permanent within the temple.
Folks, this is how the people of Joel’s day understood their relationship with God. God separated God’s self from the people; only the high priest, and occasionally a called prophet, had access to direct communication with God.
But then, through Joel, God said a time was coming when God would pour out God’s spirit upon everyone, not just once but throughout the generations, so that people would have open and direct access to God. In other words, a day was coming when God would CHANGE EVERYTHING about how God relates with people.
And guess what? Thanks to Christmas, thanks to Jesus’ birth, that day has come. Because Jesus grew into a man who died for us, and when he died, that veil in the temple was torn, the barrier between God and humanity was destroyed, and a few months later God did, indeed, pour out God’s spirit upon humanity.
Why return to God? Why focus on preparing for Jesus’ actual birth instead of some wintery holiday that distracts your focus on God? Quite simply, because you have direct access with the Almighty Creator of all things, the One who knows what is best for you and for all the world, the One who can show you how to get the most out of life. God has done God’s part. Access has been granted to you. But there’s STILL a barrier. It’s just that this time, the barrier isn’t God’s idea; it’s our idea. WE construct barriers between us and God by directing our focus to all these other things. You simply can’t be open to hearing what God’s trying to say to you when you’re so focused on all these other things that have nothing to do with God.
Y’all, it’s time for us, God’s people, to dream some dreams. It’s time for us to see some visions. It’s time for us to move from an existence that can best be described using words like “darkness” and “despair” to an existence that can best be described using words like “bright” and “hopeful” and “amazing” and “new”. It’s time to start realizing that when we listen to and follow God’s will, anything, absolutely ANYTHING, is possible…even things beyond our wildest imagination.
Let’s dream some dreams! Amen.