Every year, we hear it: “Put Christ back in Christmas!” “Keep Christ in Christmas!” Well, if truth is to be told, there are many things Christians need to put back in Christmas. Here’s a list of ten things:
- Put the infant Jesus back in Christmas.
And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus (Luke 1:31).
The good news of Christmas is that for our weakness, God became weak. For our vulnerability, God became vulnerable. For our salvation, God became an infant.
God became a new-born baby dependent on humans to teach humans to become dependent on God.
As a church, let’s keep the infant Jesus in Christmas by always depending on God as infants depend on their parents. When we gather for communion each Sunday, we come not because we’re strong; but because we’re weak. We come, not because we have a lot faith, but because we have some doubt. We come, not because we are saints in need of affirmation, but because we are sinners in need of grace. We come, not because we are invincible and immortal, but because we are vulnerable and mortal.
- Put Quirinius, the governor of Syria, back in Christmas.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:1-2).
When God chose to to reveal God’s love for the world, God chose to enter into a part of the world that has been demonized by Islamophobic Christians. I have heard people say that 9-11 taught them all they need to know about Middle Eastern people. The story of Christmas teaches me all I need to know. The people living in this part of the world are created in the image of God. When Jesus said, “For God so loved the world,” the was talking specifically about their world. They are God’s beloved children.
As a church, let’s keep the governor of Syria in Christmas by never dehumanizing or denigrating any person based on race, religion, or ethnicity and by courageously correcting people who do. Islamic extremists who run over and kill people in Central Park do not speak for all Muslims or all Middle Eastern people anymore than Christian extremists who run over and kill people in Charlottesville speak for all Christians or all Americans.
- Put Mary back in Christmas.
All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child (Luke 2:3-5).
It is ninety hilly miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. New Testament and biblical archaeology professor, James Strange, notes: “It was a fairly grueling trip…most traveled 20 miles a day.”
He continues: “Mary, as pregnant as she was, would have endured freezing temperatures, the constant threat of outlaws on the trade route, and harsh terrain. [And] when Mary finally reached Bethlehem, she and Joseph were turned away.”
As a church, we need to keep Mary in Christmas by always keeping risk in Christmas, by keeping adventure, sacrifice and selflessness in Christmas. Because the truth is, when the church becomes nothing more than a snug, safe, and static sanctuary, it ceases being the church.
- Put the manger back in Christmas.
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn (Luke 2:7).
In our minds, the Nativity is majestic. It is glorious. There is no crying, no fussing, no restlessness, no dirty diapers, no spit up, no anxiety, no fear. Our Nativity is a serene, sweet, sanitized scene. But that was not the reality of Christmas. The reality of Christmas was not beautiful, and it was far from perfect.
We don’t sing AWAY in a Manger for nothing, as Jesus was born far, far away from home among animals in a cattle stall and placed in a feeding troth with the stench of wet straw and animal waste in the air.
So, as a church, let’s keep the manger in Christmas by always being authentic, real people living in the real world, concentrating on real problems, comforting real pain, confronting real evil. The last thing this fragmented world needs are more fake, sanctimonious, pretentious Christians.
- Put the shepherds back in Christmas.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified (Luke 2:8).
Like the Nativity, there is a tendency to romanticize the shepherds. After all, we have been raised in the church with our innocent children depicting shepherds wearing bathrobes in adorable Christmas plays. However, the reality is that shepherding was a despised occupation. New Testament Scholar Alan Culpepper writes: “In the first century, shepherds were scorned as shiftless, dishonest people who grazed their flocks on others’ lands.” They were considered to be among the outcasts of society.
Fred Craddock wrote that the shepherds belong to the Christmas story “not only because they serve to tie Jesus to the shepherd king, David, but because they belong on Luke’s guest list for the kingdom of God: the poor, the maimed, the blind, the lame.”
As a church, let’s keep the shepherds in Christmas by always standing on the side of all those those that society marginalizes.
- Put Joseph back in Christmas.
“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly” (Matthew 1:18-19).
Because he was a righteous man, Joseph promised: “I will not harm her, ridicule her, expose her, shame her, or do or say anything that will demean her dignity, worth or personhood. I will protect her.”
Fred Craddock once said, “If the Bible causes you to hate anyone, you are reading it wrong.”
If your righteousness, your theology, your faith, causes you to shame, degrade or harm anyone, you are doing it wrong.
As a church, let’s keep Joseph in Christmas by always doing unto others as we would have them do unto us.
- Put King Herod back in Christmas.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him (Matthew 2:1-3).
King Herod was not frightened because a child was born to help people get through a trying week at home, school or work.
Herod wasn’t frightened because a child was born to help people have healthier relationships, healthier bank accounts, or even healthier spiritual lives.
Herod wasn’t frightened because a child was born to make a way for people to go to heaven when they died.
The king was frightened because the birth of that child meant that a political and social revolution was coming! And no amount of lying, deceit and collusion was going to stop it.
As a church, let’s keep King Herod in Christmas by understanding that following the way of Jesus always has political implications. Let us keep fighting systems of injustice and any policy or legislation that does not protect the liberty and justice of all.
- Put the gold, frankincense and myrrh back in Christmas.
On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11).
This part of the Christmas story has always bothered me. I could never figure how that little baby was going to be able to play with his Christmas presents of gold, frankincense and myrrh!
As a church, let’s keep these foreign Wise Men and their gifts in Christmas by always being receptive of new gifts, new ideas, new ways of doing things, even if they come from folks who did not grow up around here. Always remember the seven last words of a dying church are “We’ve never done it that way before.”
- Put the refugees back in Christmas.
An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod (Matthew 2:13b-15).
This part of the Christmas story bothers many of us, but we need to remember that Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus fled for their lives into Egypt where they lived in exile for years. Who knows what it must have been like for them to be forced out of their home under the threat of death and travel across nations through unwelcome terrain? Who knows how they must have felt to be so unwanted and threatened and unprotected? Who knows?
800,000 DACA recipients know.
A friend of mine moved to a new church during the Syrian refugee crises a couple of years ago when many state governors were giving executive orders denying sanctuary for Syrian refugees. During a sermon, he shared some statistics and pointed out that if every church in America would adopt just one Syrian refugee, there would be no refugee crisis. The next day, he said that “a contingent” showed up in his office.
“Pastor,” the contingent said, “we are here to tell you that your sermon yesterday about the refugees was out of bounds!”
A contingent. Every church has them. There are positive contingents, and there are negative contingents. The problem is that the negative ones are often more vocal.
As a church, let’s keep the refugees in Christmas by regularly sending a different kind of contingent into your pastor’s study to encourage him or her saying:
“Pastor, we want you to keep boldly preaching the good news of Jesus, and we want you to preach it without boundaries! Because if you ever start watering down the gospel because of a few negative contingents, if you give in and start preaching a love with restrictions, a hope with constraints, and a grace with limitations, you will no longer be preaching the good news!”
- Put the angels back in Christmas.
But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2:10-11).
New Testament scholar Culpepper writes: “The familiarity of these words should not prevent us from hearing that, first and foremost, the birth of Jesus was a sign of God’s abundant grace.” The birth of Jesus is a sign that God is on the side of ALL people—even the most despised, the most lowly, the most immoral, the most outcast.
As a church, let’s keep the angels in Christmas by always being a community of grace heralding good news of great joy for all the people, and all means all.
Let us pray together.
O God, thank you for Christmas. Now help us share Christmas by being Christmas, all of Christmas, for all of the world.
Invitation to Communion
Today we remember and celebrate the birth of Christ, God who came to us in human flesh, as a helpless baby. Those first invited to witness this event were a group of poor shepherds. They were not highly educated. They had no gifts to bring. They did not have fancy clothes. But an angel proclaimed to them, “A Savior has been born to YOU.” Today we come, as unworthy as those shepherds, to witness and receive God’s amazing grace and love.
This table is Christ’s table. It is not my table or the table of this congregation. It is the table of Jesus. And all who wish to know and love him are welcome here. Whether your faith is strong or wavering, whether you come to church often or have never been before, you are welcome here. It is Christmas and a Savior is born for YOU, and that same Savior welcomes you to this sacred meal.
Commissioning and Benediction
Go now and keep being the church and sharing the good news of Christmas in this community and in our world.
Go now into the world and keep humbly depending on God as infants depend on their parents.
Go into the world and keep keeping it real.
Go and keep preaching that all human beings are created in the image of God.
Go and keep doing justice on the behalf of the poor and marginalized.
Go and keep taking risks, serving others selflessly and sacrificially.
Go and keep doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Go and keep accepting gifts from others, even from outsiders.
Go and keep speaking truth to power, even if it gets you into trouble.
Go and keep preaching a love without restrictions, even if a contingent says you are out of bounds.
Go and keep heralding the good news of great joy for all the people. All the people. And all means all.
And always go in the name of the Savior who was born in the City of David who is Christ the Lord.