A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, December 13, 2015
Luke 1:39-56 ESV
A November 30 article in the Knoxville News Sentinel titled “Christmas is all about Jesus” caught my eye. Perhaps it caught your eye too. Please note in speaking about this story I am not criticizing. But the story related how some Clarksville, Tennessee, pastors are printing thousands of red signs with white lettering that read, “Christmas is all about Jesus.” The signs are intended to be posted on front lawns across the state of Tennessee. Such reminds me of another slogan that has been around for some decades that I used to see printed on front car license plates: “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season.” Pastor Jimmy Terry, who originated the “Christmas is all about Jesus” idea, was recently joined by other area ministers in his efforts to distribute at least 100 signs to each of Tennessee’s 95 counties. Their hope is to make the entire month of December a celebration of Jesus.
Now, on some points I can’t argue with the Clarksville pastors, who believe that Christmas has become more about shopping than celebrating the birth of Christ. “We have let these holy days become commercial holidays,” one of the pastors said. “It has just turned into a way for merchants to make money; we have lost the meaning of Christmas,” he continued.1 We all know that at midnight on October 31st, all the Halloween costumes and decorations are removed from the shelves and replaced by Christmas decorations, as merchants hope to sell as much as possible.
In a similar vein, we have been hearing and reading in the media the differences of opinion over using the terms “Christmas” and “holidays” among presidential hopefuls, as well as our own state government officials and representatives from the University of Tennessee over whether the proper term is “holiday celebrations and parties, or Christmas celebration and parties.” If you read the Knoxville News Sentinel, you couldn’t have missed reading about it, as it has been in the paper almost every day. It all may sound new; but it is really not. It is an age-old controversy played out over and again; only the players involved change from year to year.
But back to those signs. As I thought about it, it occurred to me that the slogan, “Christmas is all about Jesus,” may sound good in theory, to many Christians at least. But we all know that in practice that is not the way it is, nor the way it has ever been. Such is to say that there never has been a time when December was a month solely devoted to celebrating Jesus (as the Clarksville pastors hope for it to be) and contemplating nothing but his birth and “lifting up the name of Jesus,” to use their phraseology. The celebration of Christmas has always been a mixed bag of goods, both secular and sacred. In fact, I pointed this out in a December 2012 sermon titled “A Secular or Sacred Christmas?” In a nutshell, I noted back then that from the beginning of formal Christmas celebrations, secular, pagan customs were adopted and mixed with the sacred story and Christian customs. And it has been that way ever since.
But the point that I really want to stress today is for most of us the celebration of Christmas is a broad, multi-faceted affair that includes observance of Jesus’ birth and how he altered our world, but also additional observances, traditions, and rituals that may have nothing at all to do with the birth of Jesus; but observances, traditions, and rituals that are good nonetheless.
Now, last Sunday I spoke about the importance of Advent and Christmas services, decorations, and rituals in the context of the church, so I am not going to repeat all of that today. But if you weren’t here, you can visit my sermon blog and read it, if you’re interested.
But if we could isolate what Christmas really means to each of us—in addition to the celebration of Jesus’ birth and all the special services, hymns and music, and so on that go into that—I am guessing that for many of us the joy of Christmas has to do with personal relationships.
A big part of Christmas, for me anyway, has been spending time with loved ones; family gatherings on or near Christmas to share a wonderful meal together and maybe exchange gifts as tokens of our love one for another. When I was growing up, our family always went to my maternal grandparents’ house on Christmas Eve, where we enjoyed a big, wonderful meal together, then gathered around a Christmas tree in a living room that was filled with presents. Every single person there—and in those early days there were 13 of us in all—had a number of gifts to open. That was a highlight of the year, and something we kids looked forward to all year long. As we grew and the older ones of us started to get married, we took our spouses, so that the number continued to grow to 20-25, until both of those grandparents passed away. On Christmas Day, we always gathered with my parents and my wife’s parents. Then on Christmas night, we gathered with all the Hammer clan, my Dad’s side of the family. There were 30+ of us that gathered for those occasions. And I bet for many of you, Christmases past in large measure involved gathering with loved ones to share a special meal and maybe Christmas gifts as tokens of love.
But during the Christmas season, we also look forward to gathering with fellow church members for special meals (like the wonderful Women’s Circles Christmas Program and Luncheon this past Tuesday) Special Coffee Hours, and so forth. Some look forward to sharing a special Christmas-time meal with co-workers, or civic groups, or some other small group that they belong to. You can’t really say that such Christmas gatherings with loved ones are celebrating the birth of Jesus in the strictest sense of the term, but they are good and good for us nonetheless.
And then there is the gift buying and gift giving that is so much a part of our culture. Now, the strictly religious person may say that the gifts we buy for each other are reminiscent of God’s great gift to us in Jesus, or of the gifts the Wise Men are said to have presented to the Baby Jesus. But in reality, when we are checking off our list at Walmart or the shopping mall looking for that perfect gift for each of our family members or friends, we aren’t really thinking about the gifts of the Magi, are we? Probably not. But that doesn’t nullify the integrity of that gift buying in the least, does it? We buy those gifts out of love for those close to us, and because of the personal relationships that mean so much to us.
Yes, could it be that in the final analysis, much of the meaning for Christmas is wrapped up in personal relationships and spending special time with those who are dear to us—family members, friends, co-workers, and fellow church members? And such an idea is not too far from the biblical text that we read this morning. For the story relates how Mary, when she learned that she was pregnant with Baby Jesus, traveled to the hill country where she spent time with her relative Elizabeth, who also happened to be pregnant. We could probably spend a fair amount of time speculating and discussing all the reasons for Mary’s journey to the hill country to see her relative Elizabeth. Did she go to the hill country because she was a pregnant, unwed teenager? Perhaps. But certainly at such a pivotal time in Mary’s life, it was only natural that she wanted to be with family. Perhaps she had heard that Elizabeth, too, was pregnant. At any rate, the story illustrates the importance of personal relationships, being with those we hold dear, during those special times in our lives.
Harold Kushner tells a beautiful story of how he was sitting at the beach one summer day, watching two children—a boy and a girl—working hard to build an elaborate sand castle by the water’s edge. The sand castle had gates, towers, a moat around it, and rooms inside. Just when they had nearly finished their sand castle, a big wave came along and knocked it all down and washed it away. Kushner observes that he expected the children to burst into tears, devastated by what had happened to all their hard work. But instead, they took off running a bit farther up the shore, laughing and holding hands, and then sat down to start another sand castle. Kushner says, “I realized that they had taught me an important lesson. All the things in our lives, all the complicated structures we spend so much time and energy creating, are built on sand. Only our relationships to other people endure. Sooner or later, the wave will come along and knock down what we have worked so hard to build up. When that happens,” Kushner says, “only the person who has somebody’s hand to hold will be able to laugh.”2
Now, if we can apply that thought to our Christmas customs and celebrations, it seems to me that putting a sign in your yard and the mixed bag of ways—both secular and sacred—that we celebrate throughout December don’t really matter that much. I think that deep down in our hearts, Christmas observances that most of us find most meaningful have to do with the wonder we experience in our personal relationships, and being able to hold hands and share the joy with those we love. And that is a good thing. Amen.
1Knoxville News Sentinel, Nov. 30, 2015, 13A
2Harold Kushner, When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough