The Joy of Glory

Discovering endless joy in the boundless glory of God…

Tag: Christmas

Chains Shall He Break

*I wrote the following poem as a Christmas gift to the body of believers I serve as pastor. We spent this season going through the book of Philemon…seeing how it is that Christ came to break the spiritual chains of sin and the physical chains of slavery and oppression.  I pray that it fills your heart with the hope, love, joy, and peace of Christ as you celebrate his first Advent and anticipate his second Advent.

All alone within my cell
Four cold walls
Dark and pale

Chains about my hands a feet
Release a dream
Sought in sleep

Amidst the dark joy had been choked
Within my heart
I knew not hope

Then in the night there came a cry
A newborn babe
God come nigh

Divine in flesh the Godhead see
Born is the one
The peasant king

His incarnation wrought with light
Breaking chains
Dispelling night

My prison gone, it’s walls collapsed
By grace through faith
Freed from the past

Christ, he came to break our chains
Call us his own
Give us his name

His birth brought life unto the dead
For death he’s beaten
In our stead

Born to die that we might rise
By faith receive
Eternal life

He gave himself, manger to cross
Suffered for all
A seeming loss

But now he lives forevermore
Risen, ascended
Christ our Lord

He’ll come again in power to reign
A second advent
We proclaim

When we see him, we’ll be complete
Redemption finished
Forever free

Receive him now, yourself forsake
Your life shall he save
Your chains shall he break

The “Elf on the Shelf” Who Stole Christmas

I actually do not like controversy.

Elf on the ShelfI am a stereotypical, peace-keeping middle-child. That being said, I think I’m about to jump into a larger mess than I did with my blog about jolly ol’ St. Nick. That’s right…for better or for worse…let’s talk about the elf on the shelf.

Now, if you have somehow managed to go through the last several years of Christmases without hearing about this rapidly spreading tradition…then here is a brief history lesson of the shelf dwelling elf. Apparently, various forms of the elf on the shelf have existed for quite some time, but the modern craze began in 2004 with the writing of a short story by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bel.

The story was published in 2005 and explains how Santa keeps track of who is naughty and who is nice via a personalized elf on the shelf for participating families. Once you have acquired your elf, you name it and then he or she will show up at your house each day to keep watch over you until Christmas Eve. Every night, the elf flies to the North Pole to report to Santa your daily behavior. Thus, every morning you will know the elf  left your home and returned due to the fact that he/she will be in a new location. Now…no kids are allowed to touch the elf as this will cause him/her to lose his/her Christmas magic.

4d23cf1ea84726c20289ab1dda3085a4This short summary describes the manner in which the elf of the shelf is intended to be used. From experience, I know many families use their elves in completely different ways. For instance, there are some for whom the elf is simply a fun mischief maker who pulls daily pranks throughout the holiday season. However, individual family uses of the elf are not necessarily what concerns me…no. My apprehensions surrounding the Christmas Keebler is rooted in its original intent as described by the book…many of you already know what I’m going to say.

The primary issue I have with the elf on the shelf is that it’s central purpose stands in contradiction to the heart of Christmas…the gospel. The elf records your deeds to see if you measure up and deserve presents on Christmas day. But, the true present of Christmas is “good tidings of great joy that will be for ALL PEOPLE” regardless of whether they are “good” or “bad.” That good news is that “a Savior is born who is Christ the Lord!”

Christmas is a day for celebrating grace! It is a day for celebrating God giving himself to us all…freely! It is not a day for earning, meriting, or deserving. No. On the contrary, it is a day for our “deserving” to die and our “undeserving” to be declared as good news…because the undeserving are specifically the people to whom Jesus has been given! None of us deserve Jesus! None of us deserve grace! If we did…it wouldn’t be grace! Meriting something at Christmas does not make the day more magical…it actually steals all of its magic, because the magic of Christmas is grace! Nothing is more wonder producing than gospel grace!

The elf on the shelf does not bring good news…rather, he/she brings bad news that your reward depends on your ability to be good.

phariseeI tend to think the pharisees would have been big fans of the elf on the shelf. I think they tried to promote “the law on the shelf.” Jesus had news for them, namely, that no one can fulfill all the law except him…so he has done it for us. Likewise, I think Jesus would have similar news for the elf, namely, ol’ shelf-boy/girl can watch him for a record obedience…then apply it to our account! That is the only way we will receive the true reward/gift of Christmas…true life, now and forever, through Christ!

Now…before everybody freaks out and thinks I’m trying to tear apart all fun and magical Christmas traditions everywhere…I’m not! Not at all! I simply think the most magical celebration of Christmas is gospel grace, not merit-based rewards. The former is better (more magical) news than the latter. I actually think you can still use the elf if you want, but do so in a way that highlights grace, love, and mercy instead of judgment, merit, and condemnation.

Whether we are talking about the elf on the shelf or any other Christmas tradition, here are three crucial questions I think will help us shape Christmas around the very thing that created it…grace.

1. What are we saying?
Everything communicates. We all know that communication goes beyond our words and extends to our actions. This brings to mind the often quoted saying, “Actions speak louder than words.” In many cases, this saying is true, and we must remember that our Christmas traditions communicate something about Christmas and Jesus.

What-is-the-Gospel-A-Look-at-God-ManWe cannot simply use our words to say that Christmas is about Jesus and the gospel while allowing our actions to undercut that message. The things that speak the loudest are not actions or words, but words that are married to action. As we examine our Christmas traditions, we need to ask what these things are communicating, and is it a message that is in line with the gospel?

2. Why are we saying it?
If our traditions do not support the gospel, or worse, undercut the gospel…then we must ask why we are communicating these things at all? Is it worth the time and effort? Is it worth the risk of ingraining a false message within our kiddos.

I have had people become really angry with me as we have discussed Christmas traditions such as Santa Claus and elf on the shelf. Typically, during the conversation, I ask them why doing these things is so important to them. Some of them have answers, but many cannot explain why they do what they do…or why they even want to do it.

I am not saying that we need to abandon our traditions, but we need to be willing to examine them and ask “why?” Even if you choose to do things such as elf on the shelf, you need to know why and make it a good reason why…a grace centered reason why.

3. Can we and should we say it differently?
Whether we are talking about the elf on the shelf, Santa, or whatever…can we use these things to speak the true message of Christmas? Can the elf become a pointer to grace…a pointer to Jesus…a pointer to the gospel?

Elf on the shelfI want to encourage myself and all of us to think deeply about our traditions and keep what should be kept, leave behind what should be left behind, and change what should be changed.

None of our traditions are more important than the gospel. If we can use the elf to highlight the gospel, then let’s go for it. If not…then perhaps we really should put him/her on the shelf…permanently.

The Pagan Roots of Christmas?

*Disclaimer: I use the word “pagan” a lot in this blog. This is not meant as slander against anyone of any religious belief. It is a “catch-all” term for ancient poly-theistic religions.

Every December, all my social media feeds seem to fill up with various quotes, articles, and arguments that could all be summed up the same: Christmas has pagan origins, therefore Christians should not celebrate it!

Now, I’m not about to make fun of anyone who has done research, prayed, and come to this conclusion for their family. I respect your decision to disengage from a holiday that you believe is not actually a “holy-day.” However, on behalf of the many who may feel confused and torn as to whether or not Christmas celebrations equal pagan adoration… I wish to share a few thoughts that will hopefully bring some clarity to this yule time disparity (I promise I’ll stop the rhyming now).

Is Christmas Pagan?Matters of history are very complex, and one’s conclusions are often based on their interpretation of the evidence rather than bare-faced-facts. Such is the case when determining whether or not Christmas has pagan origins. As you research, you will quickly find that all scholars do not answer this question in the same way.

Some will say that pagan celebrations (primarily surrounding the winter solstice) pre-dated Christmas. Thus, Christians developed Christmas as a replacement for this false worship. Others will say that although there were pagan holidays surrounding December 25th, they were not actually large celebrations within the pagan world until after Christians began making a big deal out of the birth of Jesus. Then, in response to Christmas, pagans amped up their celebrations. It’s kind of like the whole chicken versus the egg situation.

mistletoeJust for the sake of argument, I want us to assume that Christmas did originate as a replacement for pagan celebrations (which is the most popular theory). I will also acknowledge that various Christmas symbols have roots in pagan worship…for example the yule log, mistletoe, and even the O’ Christmas tree with its lovely branches. So, the question is…if we acknowledge pagan roots for Christmas and much of its content, is it ok for Christians to still celebrate this holiday?

In a word…yes. At least I believe so.

I’m not saying that believers in Jesus HAVE to celebrate Christmas! If you have come to a different conviction, I trust that you will follow the Holy Spirit’s leading for your family. But, if you are on the fence or have nothing to say when people bring up the pagan origins of Christmas… I would like to give you a little food for thought.

There are four basic things that have led me to the conviction that it is ok for Christians to observe Christmas. 1) The nature of Christianity in relation to paganism, 2) The practice of Jesus, 3) The value of sacred time, and 4) The fact that Christmas doesn’t have pagan origins (just hang-on…I will explain).

1) The nature of Christianity in relation to paganism.
Our God created all things, therefore, all things belong to him. God doesn’t hijack what belongs to pagans… pagans hijack what belongs to God. All throughout Scripture, God is constantly taking back things that have become a part of pagan worship, conquering them, redeeming them and using them to display his own glory! We see this from the very beginning of the Bible. The creation story of Genesis 1 is told in the typical form of an ancient creation myth. Does this mean that the writers of Scripture are not very creative and have to rip off story-telling forms from other nations like Babylon? No. God takes false stories from competing world-views and redefines them with truth!

We can also see this principle in the Israelites Exodus from Egypt. God brings ten plagues upon the Egyptians before Pharaoh is willing to release the Hebrews, and each plague is designed to reveal God’s power over one (or more) of the Egyptian gods. The Lord is conquering/taking back Egyptian religious symbolism and using it to display his own sovereign power!

Again, we could look at something like the tabernacle/temple and the system of sacrifices set in place by God’s law. There, we find many parallels with pagan temple worship, but God has completely redefined their meaning. Instead of a system where worshippers try to work their way towards appeasing some far-off, impersonal deity, God PROVIDES a way for sinful people to approach him in his holiness and know him intimately-lovingly-and personably.

Disc_Sol_BM_GR1899.12-1.2Again and again, we see God taking things which “belonged” to the pagan world and redefining them with truth. Christmas fits this pattern. A pagan festival celebrating the birth of Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun, was conquered by the truly unconquerable SON and redefined to celebrate his birth! Christmas isn’t a surrender to paganism, but a conquering of it! Christmas replaces lies with the loving truth of Christ! It replaces the worship of false gods with the wonder of true glory… the glory of Jesus!

ChristmasTreeFurther, the fact that “pagan” symbols have been redefined with Christian meaning is not syncretistic (the blending of two religions) as is often alleged. No. It would be syncretism if Christians used Christmas to celebrate the birth of Jesus while simultaneously bowing down before their Christmas tree to pay homage to mother earth for the eternal life she gives represented by the evergreen! However, it is not syncretistic to redefine the Christmas tree to symbolize that Jesus, the light of the world, would come and give his life on a tree (the cross) and turn that tree into a symbol of light and life.

If it is not ok to redefine pagan symbols in this way, then we may need to reconsider our use of the cross itself as it originally stood as a symbol of death for traitors against a pagan empire. Christmas is a glorious celebration of the fact that Jesus has won is currently ruling, seated at the right hand of God “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And [God] put all things under [Jesus’] feet and gave him as head over all things…” (Ephesians 1:20-22)

2) The practice of Jesus.
I’ve heard some people express concern over celebrating Christmas because it is not in the Bible. The events are there, but the celebration is not… mind you the same thing is true about Easter (and it also has pre-dating pagan Spring-time celebrations, but that’s a whole different blog).

menorah1All this is true. However, even Jesus observed holiday celebrations that were not commanded by God in Scripture. In John 10:22 we read, “At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter…” Anyone want to guess the Hebrew word for “dedication”? That’s right…Chanukah! This winter feast has its roots in events that took place between the Old and New Testaments. It is not one of the feasts that God laid out for his people in the law. Yet, Jesus traveled to Jerusalem at this time and like all other Jews, he would have participated in the festivities. Why? That leads me to the next thought…

3) The value of sacred time.
It is true that every moment of our lives is sacred to the Lord. However, we all find it useful to set aside certain times for specific focuses. For instance, every day my wife and I strive to better our marriage, but we also set aside specific time to go away together and really invest in one another. We also have special days of celebration within our marriage… like our anniversary. These are very valuable times of focus for us. Likewise, I believe there is value in setting aside special times for specific focuses in our relationship with Christ.

This is what Advent/Christmas is for me and my family. It is a set-aside, sacred time in which we focus on Christ’s first advent and look forward to his second advent. This has an awesome impact on my daily living throughout the year. This is the way Old Testament feasts were designed by the Lord, namely, to serve as intense reminders for his people of particular events and truths they needed to continually set before themselves year after year. I think this is why Jesus himself would not have had an issue with Chanukah. Even though it was not commanded by the Lord, it was a time when Jews reminded themselves of God’s faithfulness… something that none of us need to forget.

I believe Advent is a wonderful, yearly reminder to live in light of the coming of Christ. He came and he shall come again! Live in light of both his comings!

4) Christmas doesn’t have pagan origins.
christ centered christmasAnd now the one you have been waiting for or perhaps you skipped down to read first. Here is what I mean by “Christmas doesn’t have pagan origins…”

No matter what kind of festivals predated Christmas, and no matter what practices were incorporated into the Noel celebration…the origin, the beginning, the root of the Christian celebration of Christmas has always been a desire to refocus time on Jesus. The beginning of Christmas itself was always Christ. Does that make sense?

It doesn’t matter what once happened on December 25th in the pagan world… that is not the origin of celebrating Jesus’ birth. It may have affected the choice of date and some of the symbols, but the origin, the starting point, the beginning place was and is a desire to lift up Jesus as the only true king and savior of the world.

So, from my family to yours, I hope you feel free to celebrate the savior on December 25th… for one day, in the future, he will be the only one celebrated on every day that has ever been the set aside for a pagan worship… and everything that has ever served as a pagan symbol will be redeemed for its original purpose of pointing to the glories of the God who took on flesh, was born, lived, died, buried, and is alive forevermore… Jesus!

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