A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on December 30, 2012.
Are you willing to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world—stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death—and that the blessed life which began in Bethlehem nineteen hundred years ago is the image and brightness of the Eternal Love? Then you can keep Christmas. And if you keep it for a day, why not always?
–From The Spirit of Christmas by Henry Van Dyke
O God, these days make so apparent the journey of life. As one year ends and another begins, we recognize just how this journey moves on. We express our trust in you, ever and again, particularly at this juncture of the year. We pray that this year would be a year without fear in the world and all of the complexities of relationships in the nations and without fear in our own individual lives. We pray that you would not only deliver us from the circumstances that cause us to be afraid but also inspire us with your spirit that we might, in some way, be victorious, that our spirits would be equal to and more than the tasks before us. Help us to use your gifts faithfully this next year, and in so doing honor all that you have endowed us with and blessed us with. May the presence of Christ and the power of your Holy Spirit comfort us in any dark moments and guide each decision that is ours. May we demonstrate great gladness, not only in the new year but in each day of it. Each and every day, may we rise ready to do your will. Each and every day, may we see how you have prepared for us the opportunities, the blessings, and the goodness for that day. May we live each and every day in a way that allows Christ to show through us, to live in us, to be present in the world in our hands, and if it be your will, to see this year through until the next. May we be wiser, may we be kinder, may we be braver, and may we be more faithful and ever aware of our dependence upon your grace. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
What does your after-Christmas routine involve? After the day has come and passed and stores are open again, what are the typical parts of the routine at your house? Some people travel before or after Christmas. They are trying to figure out where to make all the stops in the family in this particular week, but some families travel after Christmas. It is sort of a winter family reunion.
There are other travels. It is a major time for tourism. If you think of the movie, Home Alone, Kevin’s parents were going to Paris for the holidays. That is why he got left alone. Some people go skiing. It is a big time for cruises. Families give each other the gift of travel and it is a big time to travel.
Shopping is another big activity. I was interested to see that one store advertised early-bird door busters beginning at 5:00 a.m. on the day after Christmas. They were trying to capture the return, exchange, and gift card market.
Then there is trying to figure out what to do with food. Some of it goes stale and some of it goes gooey, depending on what it was made with. We try to decide if we can freeze certain things so we can keep them for later.
There is also the problem of decorations. Some people take decorations down Christmas Day or the day after Christmas. Other people let them linger for a while.
What is your routine after Christmas? Actually, we know little about Jesus’ infancy and boyhood, but much about what we do know occurs shortly after Christmas. In the passage from Luke 2:21-24, eight days after Jesus’ birth, his family has stayed in the Jerusalem area. Bethlehem is about a half day’s walk from where the temple would have been. It is the proper time prescribed by the law, so Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the temple to be circumcised. If we read very quickly, it can sound like it is one trip, but actually, it is another trip 33 days later when they go back for the ceremony of purification and they make the offering of the birds. If you think about this, it sets the pattern for much of what we know about Jesus’ life.
We know that the next time we see Jesus in Luke, he was a boy and his parents have taken him to Jerusalem for the Passover. This is where he gets lost. When they go to see him, he says, “Didn’t you know I would be about my father’s business?” When he comes out for his ministry in Luke, the first thing we see is he comes to the synagogue. Luke says, “He went to the synagogue as was his custom.” Clearly, from the week after he was born until we see him come out and begin to preach and teach about God’s kingdom coming and about the message of salvation, it is clear that this regular piece of Jewish devotion and participating in Jewish worship was an integral part of his life.
Let’s go back to Mary and Joseph eight days after Jesus’ birth. I know times are different, but I can’t imagine they are that different. That would not have been an easy thing for Mary. We don’t know that it was a particularly difficult delivery but it does appear to have been a rather lonely delivery since they were out of town and in a place where they did not know anyone well enough to be invited into their home. There was no room for them. In eight days, Mary could have begged off on fatigue, but she went with Joseph to the temple. They made that right, and then 33 days later, they have lingered long enough in the Jerusalem area that they can go and make the sacrifice. Evidently, this is before the threat of Herod is made known to them.
Again, if we project our own experience back on to them, and it had been 33 days without going back to your hometown of Nazareth to show your newborn son, Jesus, to family, wouldn’t you have wanted to get back on the road? Wouldn’t you have wanted to be counted, get it over with, and go back to Nazareth so you could show off your newborn son to everyone? If you were a young couple and you had a baby away from family, wouldn’t you just want to be home instead of in this strange place? But they linger long enough to do the things that are prescribed by the law, to do for Jesus what scripture tells them to do.
There are different ways and different traditions that describe this. Sometimes we talk about people being observant. They really do follow what is prescribed in their particular faith tradition and we will say that they are observant. In other traditions, we talk about them being practicing. Are you a practicing Catholic or a non-practicing Catholic? We could say the same thing about Baptists. What Luke tells us time and time again about not only the family of Jesus but the followers of Jesus is that they observed the parts of their faith that they were called on to do. They were obedient. They were practicing. They were observant.
If we think about Mary and Joseph, a lot of us think we have gotten our quota of religious fill. A lot of people joke with me and say, “I was here on two Sunday nights during Christmas. That should exempt me from a whole month of Sunday mornings.” We think we have gotten our fill, but Mary and Joseph had each had the vision of an angel. They had been there when the shepherds came in and told about the heavenly host and they also had the visit of the Wise Men. But it does not appear that their quota of religious experience has been enough to make them want to short circuit the things they are called upon to do. Here they are, in the temple, doing what God has asked.
It would be very easy to make this an “everybody go to church in the New Year” kind of sermon but it is deeper than that. If we read several more paragraphs In Luke 2 after the scripture I mentioned earlier, we read the stories of Simeon and Anna, two older people who were there in the temple area waiting. Somehow, they are led by the spirit to recognize who the infant Jesus was. As the parents went by with Jesus, they stopped and blessed them. There are two moments of great blessing upon Christ and upon his family that they would have missed if they had not been doing what God prescribed. It is a part of their regular practice to observe their faith, and in observing their faith, they find blessing. They are faithful each and every time, they do what the law requires, they are where they are supposed to be, and lo and behold, right there in their path, is blessing they would not have experienced any other way.
I tell you what. I will make a pact with you. I won’t tell you that you have to come to church to experience the blessings that God has put in our path if you won’t tell me that you have a better chance of experiencing it if you had never come. Is that a fair pact? We recognize that being a part of the community of faith, worshipping together, hearing scripture, singing hymns, and praying for one another are opportunities that God has for us. In a mystery of the moment something comes to us that seems like a whisper of the spirit, sometimes through a stranger, sometimes from someone seated down the pew from us. Someone says something and we realize by simply observing, by simply being diligent and practicing, This was a word of God for me today.
Let me ask, “What makes the Christmas season so special for you individually?” I think there are a few factors that would be on most of our lists. One would be the time that we invest. That might include worship but it might include other times where we are with family. Sometimes people perform acts of kindness, ministry, and mission during the Christmas holidays. We think, It’s Christmas. I have to do something for someone else. It’s Christmas. I really need to go to church. It’s Christmas. I need to go to the Christmas Eve service. So we invest time. The sanctuary is not the only place God can speak, but it is a place where most of us would testify that God often does speak.
We fill our cars and homes with music. Why is that? That is a period of time where the things that we take into our minds and into our hearts speak of the good things of Christ. Instead of all the other trash, garbage, or things that just don’t matter that we take into our lives the other eleven months of the year, we are surrounding our hearts, minds, and spirits with good things. How can that not provide God an opportunity to bless us? We do things for other people. We put an extra bit of folding money in the Salvation Army red kettles when we go by them at the stores. We give gifts to our friends or to our family by making gifts to charities in honor of them. We come through the holiday season, and all of these things have worked together to provide a spirit that is not always there the rest of the year.
What really happens? Does the season stop or do we stop? Do we stop what we have been doing and, therefore, that feeling of Christmas stops with it? If we practiced all the time what we practice during the Christmas holidays, could God’s presence, God’s reality, and that blessing we receive not be more real all the time?
If we think about what happens after Christmas, what happens after Christmas should be what happens before Christmas. Just as Jesus’ family has experienced many things and they have listened to the angels after Christmas, they go about the nitty gritty practicing of their faith and they expose themselves, time and again, to the blessing of God.
What is our after-Christmas routine going to include? Will we stop all the good things that provided opportunities for the spirit to touch our hearts or will we continue, not only in this week but in every week? The season may have stopped, but we don’t have to stop Christmas.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.