Saturday Sermon: Keep Christmas' true focus
By Herb Beyer
Christmas marks the significant event of God entering human history, taking on flesh and blood in the person of Jesus. We celebrate this event every year. People are preparing for it. But how will we experience it, remember and celebrate Christmas? It's 15 days and counting. Is your house decorated inside and out? Have you got all those Christmas cards sent via post office or email? Have you purchased the presents for family, friends and co-workers on your list? Are they wrapped and tagged? Are there Christmas parties to host or attend? Now, wait just a minute. Maybe we should look at what Christmas is really about.
When I was a child, it was the best of times at Christmas. We would gather on Christmas Eve at my grandparents' home. The Christmas tree was decorated with colored bubbling lights, ornaments and lots of silver tinsel. Presents were placed around the tree, nicely wrapped depicting scenes of Christmas (wise men, angels, mangers and such), tied up with ribbons and topped off with bows awaiting the time when all the children would gather round. My grandfather would put on thick records (78s) playing Christmas songs like, "Silent Night," "Holy Night" and "O Christmas Tree," but in German. It was family tradition. You could smell the great aromas of turkey and ham baking, savory dressing, stuffed cabbage, green beans with bacon, sweet rice, and pies - apple, pecan and pumpkin (It was Thanksgiving all over again). After the feast was placed there before us - grandparents, parents, children, cousins - everyone joined hands. The prayer was offered thanking God for the gift of this holy night and the birth of Jesus, the Savior.
But times change, and so do traditions and practices. Many families find their members dispersed to the far reaches of the country and sometimes beyond, with little opportunity to come together for such celebrations. Now, Christmas seems to have become about long lines in early morning hours with shoppers hoping to get the best gift at a great bargain on all sorts of electronics, clothing or toys. People are pushing and shoving in malls filled to near capacity.
The Internet is working overtime as folks make their catalog orders. Some will max out their credit cards buying things they can't afford and that folks don't really need or want. During a season of "peace and good will to all men (women, too)," you hear of an altercation between two men over a parking place. People seem to get so exhausted and end up short-tempered in the hectic pace to get everything ready for Christmas celebration. But what has Christmas become? Some schools and stores ban Santa and nativity scenes and limit choirs to singing a single religious Christmas song of "Silent Night." Though there is nothing inherently wrong with people saying "Happy Holidays" and "Seasons Greetings," they have come to replace the familiar "Merry Christmas." It's not that way everywhere. Some may see such concerns by Christians as being overly sensitive about the issue, but perhaps it's that folks miss the point - Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the gift of Jesus from God to the world. God gave his Son to this world to save, heal and restore the creation, which by the way is broken, chaotic and a mess.
A friend of mine shared how his family has sought to restore Christmas to their celebration and keep its true focus. Gifts are limited, and to the grandchildren only, and nothing over the top. This is not because they can't afford extravagance. They could without any problem. But they choose not to place the emphasis on the things, but instead on relationships. Christmas for them is a time of coming together, worshipping together as family on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in God's House. It is a time for the whole family and their circle of friends to come together, to feast, to pray and to strengthen those relationships. They have discovered that the important things are not things at all, but are really the treasures given by God - relationships - our faith in Jesus Christ, our involvement in the community of Church, our family and circle of friends. And the greatest gift to give to someone at Christmas or anytime is Jesus.
Some share this Jesus who embodies the love and grace of God at Christmas in gathering and giving food, blankets and Bibles to needy families and toys to the children who have little or none. When I was in high school back in early 1970s, there was a Trinity University student who gathered toys for less fortunate children in San Antonio. It started with a few, and now numbers in the thousands. The woman came to be known as Elf Louise. In Lavaca County, the St. Nicholas Ministry, now in its 24th year, provides boxes of food and toys in this season, likewise, to distribute to ones Jesus described as "the least of these." In many other communities, there are persons who have intentionally chosen to give of themselves, rather than looking for what they will get on Christmas morning.
Yes, it will be a very Merry Christmas as people rediscover the true meaning of this celebration - to receive God's gift of Jesus - Savior of the world, as they give Jesus to others, and as they care for and strengthen the real treasures of faith, family and friends. Christmas, it's coming. May Jesus come to your home bringing joy, peace, love and hope.
The Rev. Herb Beyer is pastor of Tri-County Cooperative Ministries, ELCA.