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And in the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the
fields, and keeping watch over their flock by night.  And an angel of
the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around
them; and they were terribly frightened.  And the angel said to them,
"Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which
shall be for all the people;  for today in the city of David there
has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  "And this
will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying
in a manger."  And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude
of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
 "Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased."
Today, as we light the 4th Advent Candle, the Angel Candle, we celebrate
the Angel's message and are reminded of God's love in sending His son.
John wrote, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten
Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting
life." (John 3:16 KJV) Last week, as we lit the Shepherd's candle, we reflected
upon the phrase, "for all the people." The good news that the Angels brought
was intended for everyone-even the shepherds. Today we do not focus so
much upon the intended recipients as we do the message itself-the message
of love. It isn't exactly a Christmas Carol, but the final verse of "At
Calvary" captures the message of the Angel's candle: "Oh, the love that
drew salvations' plan! Oh, the grace that bro't it down to man! Oh, the
mighty gulf that God did span at Calvary."
Yes, the hymn's focus is probably more appropriate for a Good Friday
Sermon than a Christmas sermon, yet the "good news of great joy" was about
a special birth that would lead to a special death. Later in the service
we will further explore this truth as we consider the Magic of Christmas,
but before we do, we're going to sing some Christmas Carols and rejoice
in the "good news of great joy."
Personally, I'm not a big shopper. I'd rather click a mouse button and
make a purchase over the Internet than stand in lines at stores, and yet,
I love to go Christmas shopping. This year, Susan & I did quite a bit
of shopping together, but I made several side trips on my own to buy gifts.
I've also savored every moment of our celebration here at the church
and look forward to what is still to come. Our Angel Tree, birthday party
for Jesus was the best yet. I love watching the prisoners' children come
into our sanctuary and receive the gifts we gave them in the name of their
parents and in the name of our Lord. And what about our Choir's ministry
to us last week, wasn't it great? I also look forward to our Annual Deacon-led
Christmas Eve service. I anticipate it being the highlight of my personal
In our culture, icons of the Christmas Season peacefully co-exist with
religious meaning and celebration. Oh, occasionally we religious leaders
bemoan the commercialization of Christmas or criticize its secular trappings,
but for the most part, we look forward to celebrating Christmas, American-style
as much as anyone else. Frankly, I don't see anything wrong with singing
Jingle Bells or having our children take their picture on Santa's lap.
Perhaps you disagree with me, and that is certainly your right, but as
far as I'm concerned, what is important is that we keep Jesus' birth central
in our celebration. Something I believe most people do to some extent.
The Scripps Howard News Service questioned 1,001 people over the past few
weeks to find out their Christmas practices. The majority of those surveyed,
in fact, almost two-thirds, (62 percent) said they expected to attend a
Christmas religious service, either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
But imagine what it would be like to have a Christmas celebration that
did not center around the birth of Jesus-a completely secular celebration-A
Christmas with all the wrappings, but no Christ. What would Christmas be
like without Christ? What meaning would it really have? Of course, for
many people, this is not a hypothetical question. Scripps Howard also found
that nearly half of Americans reported that they know someone who doesn't
believe in God, but will still celebrate the Christmas holiday this year.
They also found Americans overwhelmingly believe the holiday is becoming
less focused on the birth of Jesus than it used to be.
The poll found that 80 percent of Americans plan to decorate a tree
this year, including 68 percent of people who said they had no religious
Ron Barrier, a leader of American Atheists says, "There is that old
tradition that says if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." He says Christmas
is seductive and adds, "And it does seem that people behave a little better
around the holidays, and that's always a good thing."
It is one thing to have the choice to include Christ in Christmas, and
choose not to, but another not to even have the choice. Dr. Mateen Elass
grew up in Saudia Arabia where he didn't have a choice. The Islamic ruled
country did not celebrate the holiday, but allowed Westerners in oil company
towns to celebrate it as long as the message and the decor were not specifically
Christian. In his youth, Elass associated Christmas with reindeer, stars,
colorful lights, sleigh bells, parties, and decorated trees. He remembers
being told that the deeper meaning of Christmas was love and good will
shown by giving and receiving of special gifts on December 25th.
Giving and receiving gifts is an important part of celebrating Christmas,
but generosity is not the message. Others observing our traditions might
say that "being together"-building community is what is important about
Christmas. And frankly, I wouldn't disagree that it is a piece of Christmas
magic. University of Texas Historian, Penne Restad, author of a book entitled,
Christmas in America: A history says, "Christmas has become as much a celebration
of community as it has a celebration of religion."
Community is important. It is important to the fabric of our nation,
our church and our families. But real community can only take place in
the context of strongly held beliefs-beliefs like Jesus was born of a virgin,
lived a sinless life and died on the cross for our sins.
If we aren't careful, we can disembowel Christmas of its religious character,
and if we do, we will drift into the New Year with hollow community, low
bank balances, high credit card debt, and an empty feeling in the pits
of our souls. But if we truly celebrate, we can experience transformation.
Dr. Elass says Christmas proclaims God's love, and reminds us that God
was not satisfied to speak His word from a distance, but became a man and
lived among us. According to Elass, Jesus was "God with skin on, the perfect
means of revealing all we can comprehend about the mind and heart of God."
Consider the thought-God became man and dwelt among us. He who created
us, became one of us so that He could restore us to Himself. Think about
the power in that act. Why would anyone who knows that truth settle for
a celebration void of that transforming power?
When we immerse ourselves into the season and fully experience the magic
of Christmas-when we celebrate the Incarnation, "we say 'yes' to God's
plan to raise us to life in Christ - it is to say 'goodbye' to our old
comfortable lives enjoyable sins, and private agendas, and lay ourselves
on God's operating table." (http://www.freshministry.org/illustrations.html)
Our lives are changed forever-like the shepherds were, who left their
flocks to worship God. Or Simeon was, who felt his life was complete because
he'd laid his eyes upon the Messiah. Our lives will be changed like the
Wise Men's who lavished gifts upon the baby in the manger, or Mary's was.
Please don't settle for Christmas wrappings, when you can have the greatst
gift of all times.