What I Learned about Christmas from My Church
First Baptist Richmond, December 31, 2023 The First Sunday after Christmas Day
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.”
It seemed like a good idea at the time, and it was. But it would have been so much better if I’d had it a few weeks earlier. Ruth Szucs tried, she really did. She called every student on our list and said, “Would you be willing and able to share some thoughts on Sunday morning about what you’ve learned about Christmas from your church?” Some were willing but unable; others were able but unwilling; these two who have spoken today deserve some sort of prize for getting up off the Christmas couch and into the pulpit, but I feel sure that if others had had a little more time they, too, would have risen to the challenge. It came a little late, but it was still a good idea to think about what we’ve learned about Christmas from the church.
Because the only alternative, really, is to learn about Christmas from the culture, and the culture’s understanding of Christmas is…strange. It involves someone named Santa Claus who lives at the North Pole and oversees the work of an untold number of elves who spend the year making toys for good little boys and girls so that on Christmas Eve Santa can load up his sleigh and travel around the world, parking on people’s roofs and coming down their chimneys with a sack full of toys and goodies so he can fill the children’s stockings and leave presents
under the tree before heading on to the next house.
As I said, it’s strange, but not that much stranger than the church’s version of Christmas, which involves a couple from Nazareth traveling to Bethlehem, where the young woman gives birth to a baby boy in a stable because there is no room for them in the inn. But then a heavenly host of angels comes to a group of shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night, with news of great joy for all the people, because unto them has been born that day a savior who is Christ the Lord.
You could just toss a coin and take your pick between these two strange stories, but you want to be careful about that, because the culture’s story is conditional: Christmas is good news if. And that if is summed up best in the words of a Christmas classic called “Santa Claus is coming to Town”:
You better watch out,
You better not cry,
Better not pout,
I’m telling you why:
Santa Claus is comin’ to town.
He sees you when you’re sleepin’
He knows when you’re awake,
He knows if you’ve been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake.
You see, in the culture’s story of Christmas, you get presents if you’ve been good, and while the song doesn’t come right out and say it the implication seems clear that if you’ve been bad you don’t. You might get something worse. And then there’s the idea that Santa has his surveillance cameras trained on us 24 hours a day, watching to see if we are being good or bad. So, you better watch out, you better not cry, better not pout, I’m telling you why.
Santa has his eye on you.
But in the church’s story of Christmas God knows that we are not good. It’s not even a question. Long before Jesus came into the world the prophet Isaiah made it plain that all of our righteousness is as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). God sent Jesus not because we were so good, but because we were so bad! Because we needed what he could give us: a fresh start, a clean slate, a chance to begin again. Both of the gospels that tell the Christmas story speak of Jesus as a savior, which suggests that God sent his only son because we needed to be saved.
Turns out we do.
That’s the church’s story of Christmas. You can believe the other one if you want to. In some ways it’s more fun, especially when you add Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But that story is conditional: it depends on us being good. And the more we try to depend on our goodness the more we see how much we need Jesus. So, you can tell people that Santa Claus is coming to town, but I’m going to go, tell it on the mountain—that Jesus Christ is born.
—Jim Somerville © 2023