(138) The Joy and Meaning of Christmas
The Joy and Meaning of Christmas
December 12, 2010
· 135 (Homesickness), Christmas packet
Scripture reading: Luke 2:1-20 Sarah Dunn
· That’s got to be the classic Christmas passage – how many people thing of “Charlie Brown Christmas” when they hear it?
· Traditions and holidays are great, to come back to important part of our story, but there is the danger of routine.
More than a feeling
Christmas sermons are pretty tricky – I know many of you have heard the Christmas story many, many times, from Sunday School to church to Charlie Brown.
So this isn’t exactly a Christmas sermon, at least I am not going to retell the story and purpose of Christmas – the Incarnation, God becoming and dwelling among us.
Next week our kids are going do that with their Christmas production, with our kids dressed up in cute costumes.
Q How can I compete with that? If I come dressed up in a bath robe, it would be disturbing, not funny.
· In a way, I want to restore the wonder of Christmas – so we are just going to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” all 130 min.
This sermon is different than any I’ve done – my goal isn’t so much to teach something, but to make you feel something. Even that isn’t right – I want to remind you something you have felt.
The thrill of joy
Last week we sang “O Holy Night” and one line goes “A thrill of hope.” That line kept rattling in my head. It’s a strange expression, yet it is strangely familiar.
· It’s buried deep in our memory, I want to pull it out.
Like all deeply meaningful things, this feeling is hard to describe. I think we have all experienced it at different times and different ways, and call it by many different names.
· I will call it a “thrill of joy” for lack of a better term, knowing that is not quite right.
Rather than trying to describe it, I will share earliest memory of this feeling (there’ve been many other times), in hopes of helping you identify it.
I have never shared it before, partially because it feels so personal, and partly because I thought no one would understand, but I have good reason to believe I was wrong.
· If my experience is entirely foreign to you, I apologize – it is not the main point of the sermon, so hang on.
· Understanding this part will make it easier to understand the rest of the sermon.
But, if you hate C. S. Lewis, you will be out of luck, because he has been my mentor in understanding and applying it.
My ice palace
I was very young, perhaps 7-8, it was winter, and the frost had created crystals in the mud like this. These are called “ice needles” and occur when the soil is above freezing and the air is below, causing the moisture to leach out of the soil.
· But didn’t know that then, and didn’t care – all I cared about was that it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
I felt this thrill of joy, an excitement, which the ice itself couldn’t account for. I was transported beyond ice and mud and saw in them an ice palace, beautiful and wonderful.
How do I describe that feeling? Wonder? Awe? Beauty? Happiness? Joy? Euphoria? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. It was all those things, yet something even more.
· It was a feeling of something so much bigger than myself.
In a way, I have never stopped looking for that ice palace. I went out the next day hoping it had reformed. It had, but it wasn’t the same.
· I’ve learned you can’t force it to come; it’s always unpredictable, always uncontrollable, and always unmistakable.
To this day I stop to look at crystals in the mud. I continue to be amazed by things that remind me of that crystal palace:
· The Ice Hotel in Sweden.
· The Giant Crystals in Mexico.
I enjoy these things because they stir in me a memory of that ice palace.
Q So why did they have that affect? Because of the beauty crystals themselves?
No – in all likelihood, the crystals in that picture are more beautiful than the ones I saw, yet it is not the same at all.
Listen to this carefully – In the same way I am draw to ice hotels and massive crystals is because they remind me of the ice palace, I was affected by that because it reminded of something else, but a memory of something I have never seen.
· Hang on to that thought for a second.
Surprised by joy
It wasn’t until reading Lewis’ autobiography many, many years later that I finally began to understand. He titled it “Surprised by Joy” because the thread that runs through the story was this same “thrill of joy.”
· He first felt it when he was about the same age, when he remembered a little toy garden his brother made in a tin.
He tried to describe it as “the enormous bliss of Eden.”
“As long as I live,” he said, “my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother’s toy garden.”
Lewis said that it was not the garden itself that drove the feeling, in reality it had been a simple, plain thing. Rather it was a longing for a Something that surpassed the toy garden, or even the most beautify real garden.
“For they are not the thing [the joy] itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
· If you have ever experienced it, you know this feeling of something bigger than you, and beyond anything you’ve known.
In other words, I believe with all of my heart that thrill of joy was a fleeting of glimpses into Heaven itself. It wasn’t merely joy; it was a brief experience of Joy Himself.
· As long as I live, my imagination of Heaven and God’s presence will retain something of my ice palace.
Q Are you tracking with me? Do you have stories like this?
Think back for a few moments – it may be a ways back. It may be buried by a lot of busyness and being “practical.”
Perhaps it was a sunset that turned the world to gold, a song that transported you, or birth of your child. For many people it occurs during worship. Perhaps it was during Christmas.
The other side of the coin
Let me explain it another way: Last month, when I preached about fasting, I talked about a sense of longing, homesickness, loneliness, a feeling that we are not quite whole.
I was a little nervous to talk about that topic, for fear that I was the only one who felt that way, but many people said it was the most important part of the sermon.
See, we’ve been made to believe that when we’re lonely, there is something wrong with us, and if we got married, had kids, prayed more, accomplished this or that, the loneliness would go away.
· But the longing won’t go away – the problem is that this world is not our final destiny, so we won’t ever truly fit in.
This loneliness and this thrill of joy are opposite side of the same coin – one is feeling of incompleteness, the other is the merest glimpse of what that completeness looks like.
· The key point is that the both the Joy and the Homesickness is a longing for something beyond this life.
Signposts to God
And it was precisely this “Joy” or “Longing” that lead C. S. Lewis through a pain-filled childhood and through atheism to God, because it was a longing for something beyond.
Lewis’ life was a quest to find it, as portrayed in “Pilgrim’s Regress.” He tried many things – music, fantasy stories, Wagner operas, each having a glimpse, but not the object itself.
· He came to see the joy as a signpost, pointing continually to God, even as he fought to ignore him.
Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth. And yet it is a remarkable thing that such philosophies of Progress or Creative Evolution themselves bear reluctant witness to the truth that our real goal is elsewhere.
When they want to convince you that earth is your home, notice how they set about it. They begin by trying to persuade you that earth can be made into heaven, thus [appeasing] your sense of exile in earth as it is.
Next, they tell you that this fortunate event is still a good way off in the future, thus [appeasing] your knowledge that the fatherland is not here and now. C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
Restoring the wonder
I know this seems like a long way around the barn, but now, at last, we come to restoring the wonder of Christmas.
The wonder of Christmas is very much related to thrill of joy. It perhaps is not piercing or intense, but more frequently felt during the holiday season.
· Christmas lights, a decorated tree, hot cocoa, Santa, or fudge all give a joy and wonder more than value of the cause.
The wonder of Christmas is also like the thrill of joy in that you cannot force it. If you sit by the Christmas tree and try to make it happen, you’ll be disappointed. It’s like grasping sand.
· That’s why attempts to recreate your memories of Christmas typically fail, and then you feel like a failure.
That being said, I must confess, I have led you on with a bit a false pretense – I said I was going to restore the wonder of Christmas, but as you see, that is impossible.
· More importantly, that is not the point, because the wonder is the means, not the end.
Just like the thrill of joy, the wonder of Christmas, is meant to point us to something else, something far greater than itself, far beyond us, something eternal.
· All holidays were originally “holy days,” religious events, designed to point to God and to teach about him.
In other words, like the thrill of joy, the wonder of Christmas is a signpost designed to point us “the Meaning of Christmas” – the wonder of the Incarnation, the miracle God becoming flesh.
Putting Christ back in Christmas?
Q What is your immediate reaction to that? Do you secretly cringe, like I do?
Why? Because when I hear some people say “put Christ back into Christmas” I get the impression they don’t just want to put him back in it, they also want to take all of the fun out of it.
Q Do you know that I’m talking about? Have you ever been made to feel guilty for enjoying Christmas?
· It’s as if by exchanging gifts, feasting, drinking, and playing, we are somehow making Christmas less Christian.
I’ve gotten the impression, that if we really spiritual we would be perfectly happy without any of that stuff, just reading the Christmas story in a barren room.
· This is absolute nonsense and thoroughly unbiblical – a view (by the way) driven by and ignorance of the OT.
Happy Holy Days!
The entire thrust of the OT is that joy and holiness are not just compatible, but intertwined. Here is just one example:
ESV Nehemiah 8:9-10 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
Let me unpack this – many Christians tend to say, “This is a holy day, don’t rejoice, don’t eat, don’t drink, be solemn.” They seem to have this underlying fear that if they are having fun they are not being truly holy.
· But God says, this is a holy day, so have a great time! Break out the marbled beef, open up the port! Have a party!
Are there times for mourning and fasting? Absolutely, but they are the exception, a necessary correction, not the core.
· “At your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:11)
The constant point and motivation of the OT is joy in the sight of God. It is a theme repeated again and again – Festival after festival after festival, holy day after holy day, are filled with celebration.
· We have 10 legal holiday, plus 4-5 non-legal – they had 28.
Infusing joy and meaning
Q It makes you wonder, why does God command so many parties?
First, who doesn’t want their kids to have fun?
The best part of parenting is not making them do their chores or disciplining them, it is when those things are done, and we get to play with them, or when they are playing with each other.
But even more importantly, the festivals were designed (as I said) to teach – they taught about their history, God’s work, but also joy in God.
· Let me repeat that, because we it is so foreign to what we we’ve been taught: God gave us holidays to teach us about joy.
This is how I see it: God infuses joy and meaning – as if to say, you cannot fathom what the fullness of joy is, you cannot imagine how you could enjoy me as much as you will, so I will give you glimpses.
· You will see these glimpses at a sunset or hear some song, The thrill of joy gives us as feeling of trans-temporal joy.
· You will get it in the joy of the holidays.
The holidays intentionally blended joy and meaning, giving meaning to the joy, and joy to the meaning.
We miss this point so badly – Hebrew synonym book from 1897 didn’t even list joy. I think that this is a damnable heresy that removes tangible joy from our faith.
· In our day and age, Satan has led more people astray with this nonsense than better defended doctrines.
I pray that our children will not be among them. As I said a couple of weeks ago, God designed us to desire joy. If they don’t find it in God and his channels, they will go elsewhere.
Notice how God infuses joy and meaning –Jewish festivals are filled with symbolism and fun traditions that point back to God:
· They live in tents and party for seven days to celebrate God’s provision in the desert (this is what is happening in Neh. 8).
· At harvest time they hold a huge party thanking God for his provision, bring their crops and waving them before God.
· Passover was (and still is) filled with traditions designed to engage the kids and tell the story of the Exodus.
Think about that for a moment – does that have any application for us at Christmas? Look at the traditions waiting to be used:
· Lights to celebrate the Jesus is the light of the world.
· A nativity set to show the story.
· Giving gifts to represent the gifts of the wise men, and God’s gift to us.
I am not saying that every Christmas tradition must have a meaning pointing back to Jesus’ birth. Rather the elements of fun, joy, and meaning should flow so seamlessly that all lose track of which ones are “fun” and which are “meaningful.”
We are doing very well if our kids think of Christmas as being about toys, candy canes, and Jesus born, the taste of the candy canes become the taste of the Incarnation.
The tangible joy of toys and candy will lend joy to the (as yet) intangible joy of the Incarnation.
· And all the time, we must be demonstrating (not simply teaching) that “Jesus born” is most important.
Combining Christ and Christmas
Q How do we make the meaning of Incarnation first for our kids?
Q Never mind that, how do we make it first for us, the adults?
As I’ve been saying, many Christians take a stoic approach to their Christianity and others take an indulgent approach:
· The Stoic Christians will feel that the ideal is to make Christmas more about God and less about holiday festivities.
· The Indulgent Christian focuses on the festivities and dismisses attempts to make Christmas more “religious”
But as we’ve seen, they both miss the point – the Biblical example is to infuse them together, so that each of them builds the other. This is not an either/or proposition.
1. Change your thinking
Realize that in God’s mind the glimpses of joy, the homesickness for Heaven, the wonder of Christmas, the thrill of hope, and the miracle of the Incarnation are all mixed together.
As we do this, we stop trying to segment our holiday into spiritual and secular – the spiritual part we have to do even if we don’t enjoy it, and the secular part we actually do enjoy.
The quite wonder of the Candlelight service, the happiness of opening presents, and the delight of celebrating with friends and family are all part of the same thing.
2. Eliminate the things that do not glorify God
If you are an indulgent Christian (and most of us are), the problem with dividing the spiritual and secular elements of Christmas is that we tend to keep God out of the secular parts.
It would be silly, and dishonest, of you or me to pretend that every part of our celebration is God honoring:
· Eating to the point of gluttony (and discomfort).
· Getting plastered.
· Flirting with the boss’ wife at the company party.
· The jealousy, bitterness, and otherwise unpleasant interactions with your family.
· The unrestrained materialism, teaching our kids that stuff = happiness.
Side note: Increasing the amount of toys you give your kids will not increase their joy. There is a point that their ability to appreciate it peaks out!
3. Intentionally find more ways to infuse joy and meaning into Christmas
· Take your family for a drive looking for well decorated houses, with a thermos of hot cocoa, pray for teaching points.
· Sit in a living room lit only by Christmas lights listening to Christmas music, and read the Christmas story.
· Make cookies together and give some to your neighbors and to the Friendship House.
· Give money to the Salvation Army bell-ringers.
· Attend the Candlelight service, and stay for the cookies and cocoa afterwards.
Church around the breakfast table
Finally, I want to be so bold as to suggest an addition to your Christmas morning traditions. I know, that it sacred ground, but just hear me out.
As with many families, our Christmas morning meant getting up as early as my parents would let us and tearing through the gifts, all at once, eating candy, and crashing in the afternoon.
My parents got tired of the fact that they didn’t even get to enjoy seeing open the gifts individually, let alone enjoy the morning, so the instituted some changes:
1. We would eat a special breakfast before we opened gifts.
2. We would open gifts one at a time.
Of course we thought our parents we destroying Christmas and put up a huge fight, but when Christmas morning came along, we found we actually enjoyed it, and now it is a deeply cherish memory.
· Frankly, kids frequently don’t know what they really want!
So here is my suggestion to help you infuse more meaning and joy into your Christmas morning:
Eat breakfast together before opening the gifts and during breakfast, have church around the table. What I mean is take a few minutes to mix the meaning into the traditions.
I have created a little packet to give you some suggestions; it will take 10-15 minutes. It consists of reading the Christmas story (less than 3 minutes), some questions, and a carol or two.
· Let me add that this is part of whole “Pastor Dad” thing I was talking about – as the head of you home this is your job.
To sum it all up: Have a blast this Christmas, may your season be filled with joy, wonder, happiness, and meaning.
Q & A
· You have filled this world with joy and wonder that point to you, even in spite of all the pain.
Main Point(s) of sermon:
Objectives of sermon:
· Identify moments of “joy” and tie it to Christmas, in order to restore the wonder of the Incarnation.