When we think of the feelings we have that surround December 25th, there is an attitude, or a cultural mood, a mindset that just seems nicer.
People are friendlier, they talk to each other, people in line at grocery stores realize they don’t have to be strangers and they strike up conversations. They act as if they might could possibly be friends.
Neighbors bake banana loaf bread and take it to each other and wish good cheer. They complement each other on how festive and elegant the decorations are on each other’s houses.
People are more generous this time of year. Charitable organizations always count on the benevolence of people at this time of the year unlike any other to sustain their organizations. People want to give gifts at this time of the year. Tips are greater. It just feels good to give.
I went to my favorite Starbucks this last week and ordered my usual “tall, bold and black drip” coffee and the cashier said that it was free. I said that is so cool. She said yes someone earlier had donated a gift card to buy the person following a free coffee. She said that some people are donating money to reload the card to keep it going. That is so cool, I said. I never carry cash in my wallet. But I looked to see… That $1.80 cup of coffee ended up costing me $15.00!
People are more generous this time of year.
We open ourselves up to joy at this time of year. We decorate stuff, bake stuff, eat stuff, —we play old Christmas Carols. People who never sing at any other time of the year find themselves singing at Christmas.
We watch sentimental movies like Holiday Inn, It’s a Wonderful Life, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
We cherish rituals and traditions.
People get kinder at Christmas. Old grudges are set aside. People who are standoffish find themselves moving closer to people. Cold and distant people find themselves getting warmer and more accepting.
We have a way of remembering what is really important and what really matters this time of year. We miss the people we have lost, and we treasure those we have this time of year.
All of this is part of this annual glow-fest in our culture that we call “The Spirit of Christmas.”
And it says something about human beings that we even want this. That we want to think outside of ourselves and think of others to this great extent that we will brave mall traffic to buy that special gift for a weird uncle that we don’t really even like.
But this raises a question that was put most poignantly by the great theologian Elvis Pressley in a Christmas song that we play every year at our house when he asks, “Why can’t every day be like Christmas?”
The problem with the spirit of December 25th is December 26th. It all stops. It never lasts.
A famous incident from WWI illustrates the nature of the Christmas season very well. It was December 1914, the first Christmas of the war. Already the stalemate along the western front in France had begun to set in. British, French and German troops faced each other in their lines of trenches. If you know anything about trench warfare, then you know it’s a nasty business: hastily dug holes in the ground about two yards deep topped with barbed wire.
Special periscopes were fixed at intervals along the front line trenches, because to stick your head above ground even for a second could easily be a fatal mistake. Artillery bombardment could come at any time, day or night, and the soldiers were in constant mortal danger, not only from enemy fire but also from the cold and disease that by the end of the war had caused more casualties than the enemy.
In between the trenches was no man’s land. It was littered with craters from artillery fire, providing a momentary safe haven for attacking troops and, later in the war, a place where the poison gas could pool and stagnate. It would be liberally strewn with barbed wire and bodies in various states of decay. If an attack was ordered, soldiers would have to go over the top through this quagmire. Many were cut down within yards of their own trenches by machine guns. That was trench warfare in the Great War.
But on Christmas Eve 1914, something strange happened. No orders were given by the commanding officers (in fact the British High Command hated the whole thing), but in Ypres in Belgium, German troops began placing candles decorating the few trees that still remained around their trenches. They sung Christmas carols, including Silent Night which was originally written in German. The English soldiers responded with their own carols.
The two sides continued shouting greetings to one another until there were invitations for visits across no man’s land. Small gifts were exchanged – whiskey, jam, chocolates. A joint funeral service was held in the middle of the battlefield, where Psalm 23 was read in English and German. In one spot a soccer game was played-–won 3-2 by the Germans, incidentally.
In one spot, a British captain climbed up on his parapet and fired three shots into the air. The German officer he had shared a beer with the previous day also rose from his trench, bowed his head to his counterpart and also fired three shots into the air. And, as the officer wrote at the time, the war was on again. The generals and Prime ministers made certain that there was no Christmas truce the next year and for four more years they fought and killed 9 million men; a loss from which Europe has never fully recovered.
The spirit of Christmas says such wonderful things about the human heart, but it is so elusive.
Seems like such a simple thing that if we worked a little harder, if we just slowed down a little, if we just looked each other in the eye, if we just got a little more tolerant, if we were just a little kinder we could make it last. But we have been trying a long time now and somehow we can’t.
Why can’t every day be like Christmas?
According to the writers of Scripture it is because in this world of beauty and loveliness we are plagued with a dark and sinister force called sin.
It was in those soldiers and it is in me and it is in you. We can’t get rid of it. We can’t educate it away, we can’t reform it away, we can’t pass laws and legislate it away, we can’t find a magic pill that makes it go away, and it is killing us.
And a sweet little holiday spirit doesn’t cut it. As author Stewart Briscoe once said, “The spirit of Christmas needs to be superseded by the Spirit of Christ.” The spirit of Christmas is annual; the Spirit of Christ is eternal. The spirit of Christmas is sentimental; the Spirit of Christ is supernatural. The spirit of Christmas is a human product; the Spirit of Christ is a divine person. That makes all the difference in the world.
Jesus didn’t come to this earth to establish a holiday, but to bring His presence. He came to this earth to teach us what life could be like and when He did that got Him into a lot of trouble with many people and He was placed on a cross when He was a young man and there He died.
And somehow on that cross all the darkness of sin broke itself on Him. You see darkness does not overcome light. Light always diminishes darkness. He paid the debt of sin for us and died a death instead of us went to a grave and was raised on the third day. And that is hope and good news for the human race.
And the last thing He ever said to His closest friends before He ascended to heaven was, “And, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”
Jesus promised that he would come and take up residence in our hearts. His presence there will change the way you think, the way you feel, and the way you live. And that is the hope of the world.
Doesn’t mean your life will be easy. Doesn’t mean we will all live the perfect life or even be easy to understand at times. But it is the only hope that this stumbling, bumbling and dying human beings have that is bigger than death.
If you were honest right now I wonder if you would want to invite Jesus to be a part of your life. More than the warm glow at Christmas or at Easter; more than a holiday kind of faith; I wonder if you might be open to letting him move in and set up residence inside your heart and life.
Maybe you have lots of questions and you’re not sure about God and Jesus and if they are even real. Before you decide that faith in Jesus is not for you do your due diligence. Don’t trust the opinions of your parents, or your friends or popular culture. YOU do your own homework and see if Jesus and His claims are real.
If our church could help you with that we would love to do that. We will begin a new study in January called The Good and Beautiful Life where we will examine in depth the kind of life Jesus came of give. I encourage you to come and study with us.
If another church would better fit your needs then I encourage you to find one and begin to understand what it means to follow Jesus. There are many really good Churches in the area and I can recommend a couple to you if you want to send me an email.
But don’t keep kicking the faith can down the road year after year.
Maybe you would admit that you have a relationship with Jesus but for whatever reason, you have been holding Him at arm’s length. You and He are not as close as you once were.
Maybe you would be honest enough to say that there are some things He may want to change about you and you are not sure you want Him to change those things.
But maybe this Christmas you are feeling a shift in your values a little and you are open to a closer relationship with Jesus and you would say, “Alright, Jesus I don’t know everything that this means, but deep down in my heart, down where the knobs are, I want you to take control of my life. I would like to be your follower, your student; I want to know you deeply.”
Maybe there is a deep wound and disappointment in your life. Others are happy this time of year and are filled with joy and you smile on the outside, but on the inside you are wounded and hurting. There is regret. There is someone you miss. There is an ache that won’t go away and is not getting filled. There is a prayer that keeps going unanswered.
I cannot make you a promise that tomorrow will be easier than today. But I can tell you that the ultimate hope for our world in its darkness…the only hope that is bigger than death…is Jesus.
Someone once told a Chinese woman all about Jesus for the first time and she began to weep. Through her tears she said, “You know I always knew there ought to be someone like Him somewhere. I just didn’t know His name.”
Jesus is his name.