…and He explained all that was said about Him in The Scriptures. — Luke 24:27
In these last days God has spoken to us through His Son. — Hebrews 1:2
Pastor Brian Bill of Edgewood Baptist Church in Rock Island, IL, has a pet peeve he has shared with his family, and in a recent advent sermon, with his congregation. Bill toted a shopping bag to the stage to demonstrate his complaint about consumerism.
“Have you noticed how packaging gets smaller, but the price is going up?” he asked. His shopping bag examples included ice cream, bottled water, peanut butter and cereal.
“The boxes are hollow and shallow,” he said. “It kind of feels how Christmas feels in our society. The depth is gone.”
An “Amen!” moment.
“We can lament, and we should.”
Amen! And hallelujah! The Christmas Culture War truth is marching on!
The Christmas Culture Wars were hot and heavy in the last decade. You may remember, or have engaged in the battles: annual backlashes against companies — mostly department stores — that mandated employees not say, “Merry Christmas” in deference to expanding people groups celebrating end-of-the-year holidays. Christmas was too exclusive. Too offensive. Some even said, too “white.”
Offended Christians counter-punched:
“Happy holidays,” said the smiling cashier.
“Merry CHRISTMAS,” declared the dour deacon.
News outlets were replete with stories in communities going to court to remove nativity decorations from public view. “Church & State….!”
Christmas faithful protested. Onward Christian soldiers! To arms! To Shop-Mart! Store boycotts were enacted; headlines blared and pastors preached: “Let’s keep CHRIST in Christmas!”
AND THE SURVEY SAYS…
This battle is still fought on many fronts, though now they’re skirmishes. It’s not making headlines it seems, and that raises some questions:
- Was the Christian counter-offensive victorious?
- Is “Merry Christmas” making a cultural comeback as a less offensive phrase?
- Are nativity scenes tolerated because when the nativity is put away – by choice or court order – in the eyes of many, Jesus also disappears?
And what of Christians lamentations?
- Has Christmas become so homogenized that it’s just an adjective, even among Christians?
- Have Christians become so accustomed to Christmas — so caught up in shopping, Christmas pageants and services at church that they, themselves, have minimized Christ in Christmas?
- Are Christians more guilty of removing Christ from Christ-mas because Christians limit Christ to Christmas?
“We’re in danger of shrinking our depth,” Bill admonished. “Our danger is that Christians can shrink our understanding of Christmas as well.”
Pastor Bill showed his shopping bounty to prepare his listeners to receive the weapons of The Christmas Culture battle. These weapons, however, are in neither the courts nor bellicose retorts. As the Scriptures say, “The weapons of our warfare are not of this world…” They ARE however, IN this world, and were driven home in these quarters by three memorable pastoral encounters in three different communities during the week. Each is separately powerful. Taken collectively, however, they’re stunning Holy Spirit confirmations of how the victory over Christmas Culture Wars is literally in the our hands. That’s why they’re connected here.
IN THE BEGINNING…
The sequence began midweek. An item crawled on my Facebook timeline. It was from Jay Manguba, a pastor friend from across town. It’s rare that I stop to read timeline crawls, and rare for Jay to post, so when Manguba posts, it’s important:
“One of the coolest things I heard today,” he wrote, “ ‘I used to read a lot of books about the Bible but now I’m mainly reading the Bible.’ ”
MEANWHILE IN THE QUAD CITIES
Sunday I was visiting across state, listening to Pastor Bill, whom I’d never heard before, launch into his shopping sermon and remind the assembled congregation, “Christmas doesn’t begin with the manger and it doesn’t end with the wise men… “The best way to understand the Bible is not just looking at small sections but by seeing the overarching meta-narrative. God’s plan and the plotline of the Bible stretch from Genesis to Revelation.”
Ah, the Bible again.
- “In the beginning, God…”
- “In the beginning was The Word…”
A pattern is developing.
“How many of you have a Bible that has the words of Jesus in red? ” the pastor asked. “Imagine the Old Testament where every reference, every prophecy, every shadow, every image, every allusion to Jesus Christ appeared in red. One author has written that if such a red-letter Old Testament existed, it would glow in the dark.”
Ah, the red-letter Bible.
SERMON AUDIO: “Creation: God Makes” by Brian Bill, Edgewood Baptist Church
HOME AGAIN, HOME AGAIN
Returning to my home church Tuesday, the lead pastor (Curt Hansen), worship pastor (Andre de Mesquita) and I simultaneously arrived at our offices, and fell into a casual doorway debriefing about Sunday’s service. As in Rock Island, the Elk Grove Baptist First Sunday service had the additional communion and Advent celebration elements. Pastor Curt Hansen is a time-conscious man, often concerned whether additional elements (read: speakers) will affect his presentation (read: edit the sermon). This Sunday, he was elated. Without editing, speeding up or watching the clock, he was astounded to learn he finished at the exact time on the printed running order. Moreover, when Andre thanked him for the power of the words, Pastor Curt deferred, “It’s easy to preach when you preach the words of Jesus.”
Then to me: “The last half of the sermon, I just read the words of Jesus.”
The arsenal was loaded.
“For the remainder of my message,” I heard about 12:00 into the audio. “ I’m going to read the words of Jesus. If you have a red-letter Bible, everything I read is in red….” For the next 13 minutes, Pastor Curt let Jesus preach. Jesus finished with this: “If you hold to my teachings, if you obey me, you are really my disciples.”
SERMON AUDIO: “The Actions of Christmas: Listening” by Curt Hansen, Elk Grove Baptist Church
From three seemingly disparate locales, God spoke clearly about the responsibility of Christ-followers responding to “The Christmas Culture War”:
- Read the Scriptures
- Seek Jesus in the Scriptures.
Pastor Hansen’s in-the-moment voicing of The Word has its own impact: a personal, verse-to-verse response: “If one speaks to you, jot it down. And when you listen, listen with the mindset of, ‘What do I need to do to obey this instruction.’ After all, obedience is the point of listening.”
At the same time, Pastor Bill offered different direct warnings and challenges to bring perspective on transformational impact of The Word in a homogenizing, downsizing Christmas culture.
“Do you lament how Christ has been taken out of Christmas in our culture?” he said. “As Christians, we’re in danger of shrinking Christmas as well when we focus only on the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke and then only during the month of December.”
Just as Jesus came as a baby, said his followers must come to Him as children, and asked that children be brought to Him, Pastor Bill highlighted a children’s reader to reinvigorate Scripture reading.
“One of the most helpful resources for children is “The Jesus Storybook Bible.” Here’s how it begins: “The Bible is most of all a Story…The Story of how God loves His children and comes to rescue them. It takes the whole Bible to tell His Story. And at the center of The Story, there is a baby. Every Story in the Bible whispers His name.”
“For many years I thought that Jesus got his start when He was born,” the Pastor articulated a confession no doubt others think even today. “Jesus didn’t begin when he was born,” the pastor noted, citing Christ’s words to the Pharisees (“Before Abraham was, I Am”) and the parallel between Genesis 1 and John 1. “Actually, Jesus Christ has always existed.”
Then what’s the point of the baby in the manger? Why does it matter whether or not a nativity scene is seen? The connection, says Bill, is not dissimilar to why crosses in public are troublesome. They’re reminders.
“Christmas is all about how Christ covers our curse by dying in our place on the cross. God was sinned against and so He provided a sacrifice for sinners. God made coats of skin to cover sin. Jesus is God with skin on…”
READ MORE: The Story Behind the Red-Letter Bible
While the cultural Christmas War may not grasp this, Pastor Bill, Pastor Hansen, and Pastor Jesus say it’s imperative true Believers do. It’s these revelations that make Christmas personal, regardless of what’s said at the checkout line or the courthouse.
“Listen,” Bill concluded. “The way to keep Christ in Christmas is for us to let the light of Christ shine through us! We are containers for Christ! Let’s not become “cheater packages” filled with shrinking spirituality. It’s our job to not live lives of deception. We must avoid going shallow.”
If this all sounds a deep, it should. The answers, though, as Jay Manguba’s friend discovered, are in the book. Start with the red letters. They say, “Merry Christmas.”