Well, I hope that clears everything up.
To be sure, “the Christmas Season” is a very hectic time, seemingly beginning earlier and earlier each year. Displays go up in September, especially in decorator, hobby, or “big box” stores like Costco.
The snowball rolls faster than Santa on a Norelco electric razor and pretty soon we are up to our mistletoes in glowing reindeer, frosty snowmen, and my personal favorite, the Hallmark Christmas movie about the hard-bitten young woman from the big city who is forced to go to the small town for a business reason she really doesn’t want to do but when she gets there, meets the handsome single fella, sometimes widowed but never divorced and maybe with a young, adorable child in his stead and although she fights hard not to fall for him, eventually falls in love as the snow falls on Christmas day. In other words, every single Hallmark Christmas movie ever made.
This is the Christmas season, for good or for bad. And that’s okay.
I’m here to tell you that there is nothing wrong with Rudolph, Frosty, and all their declining sequels, the 927 iterations of Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL, getting the perfect Christmas tree and the perfect Christmas presents to put under it; with Christmas dinners and brandy and eggnog and all the other trappings of the season. And amongst all that wonderful nonsense, with Christmas Eve looming over us, you still make the time to be with us on this very busy Sunday morning. Thank you all for that.
But that, then begs the question, “why are you here?” One of our readings today is from Psalm 80. Allow me to give you an abbreviated version of this passage: “Hear us, Shepherd of Israel. Awaken your might; come and save us. Restore us, God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.”
While God is all around us and in us, it is in church that we especially feel God’s power and love. A professor of mine once said, “One cannot be a Christian alone. We need fellowship.” And it is here, in church, we have that fellowship. Every one of us came to Bethany for the first time. Maybe it’s today. Maybe it was over 50 years ago, when the church building was on Second Avenue. But at that moment, when you stepped through the door, you were adopted into the family. And for that we should all be grateful.
But what about all this Christmas Season nonsense? Should it discourage us from our celebration of the birth of Jesus? I say thee, “Nay!”
Let’s look at these traditions.
Most of us, even good Christians like all of you, have an immediate reaction when we hear the word “Christmas,” we think of one person. And it ain’t no babe in a manger.
Santa Claus. Kris Kringle. Saint Nicholas. Why, it’s its own Trinity - three and one! But long before Coca Cola gave us our perception of Father Christmas, there really is - or was - a St. Nicholas. And he really did give gifts. He was a Greek Christian Bishop 300 years after Christ’s birth and was famous for his gift-giving to the poor. Children were given gifts on his Saint’s Day, December 6, until Martin Luther, the founder of the Reformation, proposed moving the date of gift-giving to December 6, so as to move away from veneration of the saints. But the generous giver of gifts, is a very real person in religious history and is, to this date, the patron saint of sailors, archers, children, pawnbrokers and of Amsterdam and Moscow. Through the centuries, he has morphed into the jolly, “ho ho ho-er” we now know, dispersing presents to good little boys and girls, but wouldn’t it be good if we also remembered his original mission - gift-giving to the poor? Well, whether you know it or not, you actually support that, by supporting our Deacons. This year, they packaged your generous donations and gave out several dinners to needy families in the community. Let’s take a moment to thank our Deacons for doing that.
While we are in an appreciative mood, let’s also thank the Worship and Arts Commission and the many wonderful volunteers who decorated our church for the season. As we come into the sanctuary, the first thing we notice is… the tree! But what does the pagan ritual of bringing evergreens into our house at the winter solstice have to do with celebrating the birth of Jesus?
Remember Martin Luther - I mentioned him earlier. One of my favorite Christmas stories is how, in the 1500’s, Martin Luther was walking through the forest the night before Christmas. He looked up and saw the stars shining through the tree branches. He love the image so much, he went home to tell his children about it and how it reminded him of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth at Christmas. That beautiful star light was replaced with candles which were replaced with giant C9 light bulbs which have been replaced with computer-generated lighted displays set to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” And as we enjoy our trees, let’s not forget the inspiration for their decorations - the light of Christ sent to us from our Creator Father.
Now of course, under every Christmas tree we hope to find…Christmas presents! We talked about how St. Nicholas gave presents to the poor. But our tradition goes back even further - to the original Christmas remembrance! Reading from Matthew 2, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem.”
Let me stop there for a moment. “Magi from the east came to Jerusalem.” And right now, every one of you is singing in your head, “We three kings of Orient are…”, but no - there is no number of Magi, Kings,Wise Men, or whatever you want to call them. But it’s still a nice song.
But I digressed. Continuing Matthew, “When they saw the star, theywere overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
Nowadays, it is more likely to be cash, perfume and gift certificate for a massage, but the tradition continues.
But how does this sum up into a Christmas message? We have the words of Jesus to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, as experienced by St. Nicholas of Myra. Martin Luther takes the pagan practice and brings us the message of Christ coming to us from heaven. And the Kings - however many there were - remind us to worship and respect the Christ child.
All of this is represented by one word. Love. Love God in God’s triune form. Love each other. And not just on December 25 and not just during “the holiday season,” but every day, in every way. Love God. Love each other. And demonstrate that love in everything you say and everything you do.
And THAT, Charlie Brown, is the true meaning of Christmas.
Now lift up your chin, tilt back your nose and let’s all sing.
HARK THE HERALD ANGELS SING.
When presented on December 23, 2018 at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Sacramento, the sermon was preceded by a video presentation, first of Linus Van Pelt from A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS reciting from Luke 2 and secondly, a melange of snippets of Holiday television shows and movies, the volume eventually overwhelming the reading of the lectionary for the day. At the end of all this nonsense, I opened with