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Jesus’ naughty and nice list is not based on those who came to church today.

 Genesis 1:1-2; John 1:1-5, 14

Christmas Day 2016

The beginnings of Christmas

Finish this statement:  “It wouldn’t seem like Christmas without….”  Obviously for those of you who are here, it wouldn’t be Christmas without church, especially if Christmas Day falls on Sunday.  Those who aren’t here this morning can have Christmas without church.  For them, something else makes Christmas more than being here.

All this raises the question of where Christmas as we know it came from.  What are the beginnings of Christmas?  Let’s take a walk backwards through time.

1993 – The beginning of Christmas Eve services at Corinth.  I sang “Joseph’s Song” for the first time the following year, our first Christmas at Corinth.

1965 – The beginning of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which its producers and ABC television predicted would be a disaster.

1957 – The beginning of the Chrismon tree tradition at Ascension Lutheran Church in Danville, VA.

1946 – The beginning of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  “Every time you hear a bell ring, an angel gets its wings.”

1940 – The beginning of the Candlelighting service at Corinth, complete with angels lighting the worshipers’ candles.  We’ve had that service annually ever since.

1939 – The beginning of the most famous reindeer of all, Rudolph.  He was created as a Christmas marketing gimmick for Montgomery Ward department store.

1920 – The beginning of the curved Christmas candy cane made by Bob’s Candies in Georgia, although legend says that a choirmaster in Germany invented peppermint sticks 250 years earlier to keep children quiet during the long Christmas service.

1890s – The beginning of the Salvation Army bell ringers collecting donations.

1870 – The beginning of Christmas Day as a federal holiday in America.

1850 – The beginning of “Jingle Bells,” which was originally not a Christmas song but a Thanksgiving song.

1843 – The beginning of the Christmas card…in the UK.  There were three panels, a family celebrating Christmas in the middle and the outer panels showing people helping the poor.  It might not surprise you that the card was created to promote the post office.

1843 – The beginning of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, arguably the world’s most popular story connecting Christmas and generosity.

1828 – The beginning of using a red-and-white flower at Christmas.  It was brought from Mexico by American missionary Joel Poinsett – thus its English name, the poinsettia.

1823 – The beginning of Santa Claus as we know him today, based on the poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” or popularly known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”  The plump and jolly old elf in his red suit driving a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer and bringing his sack full of toys down the chimney – all of that originates in this poem.

1818 – The beginning of “Silent Night” as a Christmas hymn, written in Austria by Father Joseph Mohr with the music written by his friend Franz Gruber.

1719 – The beginning of “Joy to the World,” written by Isaac Watts based on Psalm 98.  Many years earlier, as a 15-year-old, Watts had complained about church music and had been challenged to write something better.  He spent his life doing just that!

1659 – The beginning of a ban on Christmas in Boston, one that lasted about 20 years.  Very sincere Christians thought too much fun was bad for the soul.

1534 – The beginning of the phrase, “Merry Christmas,” written in a letter from an English Catholic bishop to Oliver Cromwell.  In the 1500s it was common to say, “God rest you merry,” which meant, “May God give you a prosperous and healthy life.”

1441 – The beginning of the Christmas tree, or at least New Year’s tree, as claimed by a town in Estonia.

1410 – The beginning of the Christmas carol.  Carols were originally not church songs.  They were folk songs that told stories, sung out in the open or in homes.  Traveling singers or Minstrels changed the words to fit local customs.

1223 – The beginning of the Christmas pageant.  St. Francis of Assisi used wooden characters and a real cave to tell the story of Christmas in Italy.

300s – The beginning of the stocking stuffer.  No one knows the exact date but legend says the bishop of Myra (Turkey), St. Nicholas, secretly threw a bag of gold through a window (or maybe down the chimney) so a young girl could have enough money for her dowry to get married.  The gold landed in a stocking hung up to dry.

336 – The beginning of December 25 as Christmas Day.  The emperor Constantine had something to do with that, and like some other early Christmas traditions it was an adaption of or replacement for a pagan festival.  Pope Julius I soon made December 25 as Christmas Day the standard in church.

129 – The beginning of Christmas songs (other than those in the Bible).  A bishop in Rome said that “The Angel’s Hymn” should be sung in a church service that year.

2 BC – The beginning of Christmas presents, brought by the wise men to the toddler Jesus in Bethlehem.  Their popularity has risen and fallen since that time, but it’s fairly high at the moment!

4 BC – The beginning of Jesus as a human, born to a virgin named Mary and her husband Joseph, who had traveled from Nazareth to Joseph’s ancestral home at the decree of Caesar Augustus.

In the beginning

Here’s the surprise for Christmas Day: when John writes his gospel, he doesn’t include anything on the above list.  None of it is essential to John as he tells the story of Jesus.  Of course it’s also true of Matthew, Mark, Luke, Paul, and the other writers in the New Testament that Christmas pageants and carols and presents and Santa Claus and family dinners are not essential to the message of Jesus.  But even the story of Bethlehem, of angels and shepherds and angelic visitors to Joseph and Mary – none of that matters enough for John to mention.  When John starts the story of Jesus, other aspects of the story are far more important.   Where is it that John wants our attention on this day?

First, it didn’t all start with me…with us.  John directs our attention to “the beginning.”  Sometimes it’s so easy to think we’re the ones doing it the right way – “it” being faith in God or, more specifically, faith in Jesus.   Take the matter of coming to church on Christmas Day at 11 AM.  I’m really glad you’re here, but if you leave here thinking God is happier with you because you came to church you have missed the point of Jesus all together.  Don’t assume Jesus is up in heaven instructing the angels, “Let’s get the names of those who did and didn’t go to church on my birthday.  That will be our naughty and nice list for 2016.”  This is one (wonderful) way to celebrate Jesus, but those of us who worship in this way at this time need to remember we didn’t start this whole Jesus-thing, and those who did (like John and Paul) would be no more impressed with the fact that we’re in church than they would in our Christmas trees and presents and carols – they’re simply reminders of what’s really at the heart of it all.  The purpose of Jesus’ coming is to make sure that our relationship with God is never again confused as a performance issue.  It’s by grace through faith in what he has done for us.  John wants our hearts not obsessed with ourselves.  To get there, focus on “the beginning.”

Second, what matters to God is us.  By “us” I mean relationships – the us of  connection between God and humanity as well as community among humans.  God is eternally three persons in one perfect unity, and he created human beings in his image to experience that gift of knowing and being known, of loving and being loved.  John says that in the beginning the Word is with God, and the Word is God.  Different, but one.

John wasn’t the first person to write in Greek about a very lofty philosophical concept called “the Word.” How the Greeks and Jews used it and how John used it comes down to this: “the Word” is about the ability to think (reason) and to communicate.  Words are what makes you uniquely human, because you have this part of your brain that can reason and then put your thoughts into language.  What matters to John about the coming of Christ is that he is God’s ultimate communication to us, and that communication makes possible our reconciliation to God and to each other.

Third, keep going back to the beginning.  John’s use of the phrase “In the beginning” is a direct allusion to the opening words of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  At Corinth from now through Easter we’re looking at how New Testament writers weave the threads of their story into the already existing fabric of the Old Testament.  It’s not that the New Testament is the real story and that once in a while they draw a thread from the Old to add color or proof texts.  Like a finely woven Tweed jacket, New Testament writers see the primary colors and textures as being a story God has been weaving since the time of Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses.  The coming of Jesus adds critical threads to make that story whole, but the patterns pre-exist.

Finally, the meaning of Christmas is God in our space.  “The word became flesh and pitched his tent among us,” John says in verse 14, making yet another connection to the Old Testament.  The Israelites in the wilderness lived in tents for forty years in the desert, but the tabernacle in the middle of the camp constantly reminded them of his presence.  Sure, they were in the desert, but they were not alone there.  The meaning of Jesus’ coming into the world, John declares, is that the eternal Word of God has camped right here in the flesh.

This is why for so many Christians hands-on, in-the-flesh ministry to the poor is so essential to their celebration of Christmas.  It’s not just giving money.  It is showing that lives are changed when we pitch our tent with those who need us.  That’s what Jesus did in his incarnation.  We would never again think of God as an impersonal law-giver or prophet-inspirer who barked a list of right and wrong and thundered at us for our sins.  We would see him as one who shares our space, who loves with skin on.  That is the meaning of Christmas.  Amen.

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