Why I am OK with “Happy Holidays”

It has now become part of the annual ritual to hear Christians express their frustration when they hear someone say, “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” It has become the new “ground zero,” in the larger battle over the role of Christianity in western culture. Every purchase in a store becomes a new test, and we end up frustrated and even angry. So, when we are at the mall and we purchase some clothing and the cashier says, “Happy Holidays” we are told to take this as a defiant insult to the faith and to all that we hold dear as Christians. The phrase, “Happy Holidays” is being heard as “I am not a religious person and I don’t care five cents about Jesus Christ—and I wish all you Christians would just go away.” But, perhaps there is another way to look at this.

From my perspective, I do not expect unbelievers to be merry about the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. In fact, I would rather not have the celebration of the incarnation so closely identified with all the secular trappings of this season of the year which have little to nothing to do with the birth of Jesus Christ. The incarnation of Jesus Christ is not to be confused with purchasing a new Minecraft video game, or a Ralph Lauren silk tie. Actually, we should be the ones who want to distance ourselves from all of that. We could turn the tables on the whole conversation and say, “wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could get all of the non-Christians to stop saying Merry Christmas, and start saying Happy Holidays?” This would more clearly delineate those who see this as merely a holiday time to eat and receive presents, and those who are seeking to remember and celebrate the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. The more sacred statement, “Merry Christmas” would be reserved for practicing Christians who want to keep the holy-day. Every time I hear “Happy Holidays,” I hear it as yet another quiet Christian victory as, step by step, cashier by cashier, attendant by attendant, we get our own phrase back.

Don’t forget that the reason the early church chose December 25th to be the day the church celebrated the birth of Jesus was because it was already a holiday celebrating Mithra, a Persian or Zoroastrian god associated with cattle and harvest. This was the time when Christians were being persecuted and they could not worship openly or freely. Thus, they essentially smuggled the Christian celebration onto a day when people were already not working, and celebrating Mirtha instead. In short, Christmas was originally a “stealth” holy day which was lived out underneath the larger overlay of a pagan holiday. Does this sound increasingly familiar?

We are not entering into a new situation. That’s the amazing thing about living in a post-Christendom world. It starts looking a lot like a pre-Christendom world. We must start taking our cues from the early church—especially the first three centuries—rather than the Burl Ives Christmas of 1950’s America. So, let the wider culture drone on about Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, Jack Frost, the North Pole, and Chestnuts roasting on the open fire. Indeed, “Happy Holidays” to you. But, underneath all the secular fog, we will be remembering the glorious incarnation, the Word made Flesh, the divine invasion of the planet, the beginning of the great reversal, the redemption of the world. Merry Christmas!

The Four Candles of Advent

Advent is a time of hope and expectation as we both remember and anticipate. My favorite Advent hymn is Charles Wesley’s “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” because it captures the longing so well. I would like to highlight four ways or lens through which we should think about Advent. We often designate the four candles of Advent as ‘hope, peace, joy, and love.” (This is why the third candle is pink. It is the traditional color of joy. The third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday, meaning “rejoice” taken from Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians). But, I would like to look at the four candles through a different set of Advent hopes.

First, Advent is the time we remember the hope of the Old Covenant. This is the first candle of Advent. We mostly recall the great prophetic promises of the Old Testament which anticipate the coming of a messiah into the world. The great passages in Isaiah quickly spring to mind. But this hope is not limited to the prophets. It also includes great passages in the Law (such as the great text in Deut. 18:15), or in the Psalms (such as Psalm 2 or 110). The first candle captures the entire hope of the Old Testament.

Second, Advent is the time we remember the hope of the New Covenant. This is the second candle of Advent. Here we not only have the 400 years of waiting after the book of Malachi before the coming of Christ, but the amazing ministry of John the Baptist and others like Anna or Simeon who anticipated the coming of the messiah. I love that Advent prayer found in the Book of Common Prayer: “O Lord Jesus Christ, who at thy first coming didst send thy messenger to prepare the way before Thee; grant that the ministers and stewards of Thy mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready Thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at Thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in Thy sight.” We as his ministers join in that important work of preparing the world to receive Jesus Christ, which brings us to the third hope.

Third, Advent is the time we remember the hope of the nations. This is the third candle of Advent. One of the lines in Charles Wesley’s hymn noted above is, “Dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.” We remember that there are over 2 billion people in the world who have never heard that Jesus Christ has come into the world. Jesus Christ is the deep desire of every nation, even those who have yet to hear his beautiful Name. These are the unreached peoples who do not yet even know that God has so graciously provided a savior for them. These are those who are longing for God’s visitation, not knowing that it has happened in Jesus Christ.

Fourth, Advent is the time we remember the 2nd Advent of Jesus Christ. This is the fourth candle of Advent. As noted earlier in the prayer found in the Book of Common Prayer, we are to make ready for the second advent or second coming of Jesus Christ. This is the great hope of the church. We eagerly look forward to that day when Jesus Christ will come again and he will set all things right. Wicked and evil will be crushed under His feet. Injustices will be reversed and set right. All lies will be silenced. All convenient compromises will be exposed. What has been whispered in secret will be shouted from the rooftops. Truth will be honored. God’s word will be vindicated. The church of Jesus Christ will be gloriously invited to the marriage supper of the lamb. This is the Day we are all eagerly awaiting.

So, as we light the four candles this blessed Advent, may each of these truths be ours. May the Lord bless and grant each of you a very merry Christmas!

Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: Pastoral Concerns (Part XIV)

This is the 14th and final installment in this blog series on the theology of the body. If you want to listen to the messages, they are found by clicking “listen.”

The scope of what has been covered is quite vast, but we will conclude with some pastoral advice in how these issues are playing out in the wider culture.  One of the themes of these blogs is that most Christians are not aware of the larger biblical vision and therefore we may encounter stiff resistance even within the church to historically orthodox positions regarding human sexuality.  Indeed, the voice of the culture has often overpowered the voice of the grand biblical vision.

I would like to briefly highlight four of the challenges you will face.  First, there are those who say that the whole discussion about same sex marriage, homosexual ordination, gender reassignment and so forth is “much ado about nothing.”

This is the “distraction from mission” argument.  They point out these issues do not appear in the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed, Jesus never specifically addresses homosexuality and that the Old Testament also condemns planting your field with two kinds of seed, so what is the big deal.  In short, this whole debate is nothing more than a massive distraction from our real mission, which is evangelism and social justice.

In response, we must first begin by remembering that the body in general and marriage between a man and a woman in particular is the greatest physical icon which God uses to portray a range of spiritual truths and a primary means of grace.  If the view of the body which this generation has embraced is allowed to prevail, then the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ will be vacated of its power and theological force.  Furthermore, any issue which has torn almost every mainline church in two is not “much ado about nothing.”  This is a serious issue, not a peripheral one.  Second, the creeds do not address any ethical issues; that is not their function.  The creed lives on the plane of historical acts set in a larger theological context:  So when the creed says, “We believe in the forgiveness of sins” that is meant to cover all sins without listing any of them.  So, homosexuality is not mentioned in the creeds, but neither is murder or rape or embezzlement.  Third, Jesus’ provides an unambiguous affirmation of marriage between one man and one woman in Matthew 19 and the strong embrace of the original creational design.   Fourth, we should always be on guard against the Manichean heresy which has re-emerged today.  It views the body as morally irrelevant and therefore incapable of sinning.  The body is not to be trusted.   They accomplish this, in part, by driving a wedge between the Apostle Paul and Jesus; or between the Old Testament and Jesus, allowing the church to ignore, for example, the sin lists in the New Testament which repeatedly condemn homosexual behavior.

The second argument you will hear is “why has the church focused so much on this one sin to the neglect of hundreds of other sins of which they are, by comparison, silent.”

Why, for example, would the church devote so much energy to fighting homosexuality, and never even mention even more pervasive sins such as greed or covetousness or stealing?  The answer is that to my knowledge no one in the entire church anywhere in the entire world has tried to take greed, or covetousness or stealing off of the New Testament sin lists and put it on the sacrament list. The church universally condemns sins like greed.  However, if someone tried to take greed off of the sin list as found in Col. 3:5-9 and say that we are now taking that sin off of the cross and making it a sacrament or a means of grace, then we would all be up in arms, and the church would be splitting over the issue of greed.   We are often accused of singling this issue out, but they are the ones who have singled it out by seeking to engage in a modern version of doctrinal re-assignment:  taking a sin and making it a sacrament.  This is the sole reason for the focus on this sin.

The third argument you will hear is what I call the “agree to disagree position.”

In this vision, this issue is not about revelation.  Rather, we only have endless human preferences and multiple paths to human flourishing.  The church is not seen as a defender of biblical revelation, but as an adjudicator in the midst of a sea of human preferences.  Conviction has been overturned by preferences; divine revelation has been supplanted by personal perspectives.  Truth has been uprooted by experience.  In this miry pit, the only solution is the market share solution.  We all agree to disagree about human sexuality and allow that there are multiple versions of truth and that the church will find a way to accommodate each segment of its market share.  This is a post-modern view of truth setting up shop in the church.

The fourth and final argument you will hear is that we are portrayed as angry and bigoted, which seems to be in such contrast to Jesus, who is warm, embracing and affirming.

This is an argument which we must take very seriously.  Kindness and gentleness are fruits of the spirit and we must always conduct ourselves in this way.  It is very important that we communicate very clearly that we are not opposed to homosexual people.  Our struggle is never against flesh and blood.  We must have a zero tolerance for all forms of bullying and harsh, hateful attitudes and attacks.  The church opens its doors to all.  We can no longer expect non-Christians to embrace Christian ethics (adultery, fornication and sodomy were once against the law in the US, now none are).  In our text Paul makes it very clear that even in a pagan culture (like Corinth) we are to exercise church discipline within the church, but exhibit an open embrace of those outside the church because that is the only avenue of witness we have to an unbelieving world.  The main strategy we have used to portray our “civility” to the world is summed up by the phrase, “love the sinner, hate the sin.”  The idea behind this phrase is that we can be opposed to homosexual behavior and even call it a sinful act, but we must clearly affirm how much we love the homosexual person. However, the wider culture neither understands nor accepts such a distinction.  Any judgments about sin in this culture, however gently we communicate it are regarded essentially as hate speech.  We have the added problem in that there are numerous painful examples where the church has not been welcoming to homosexuals.  The real distinction, according to Paul, is with those who call themselves Christians (where we uphold the highest Christian ethic) and those who do not, with whom we offer a bold and even extravagant embrace.

Today, we must approach the whole issue from the widest possible frame.  The church must wake up to the realization that the current debate about sexuality is not merely whether the church should “accept” or “reject” same sex marriage.  That assumes that this whole debate is about one issue rather than a whole vision of human identity and the sacramental nature of the body.  Today we hear quite a bit about the LGBT and the LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer/Questioning, Intersexed and Asexual) community.  The proliferation of letters beyond L and G and the growth of “choices” on Facebook clearly demonstrates that there is far more going on than a discussion of same sex marriage.  We are on the front end of something, not the end of something.  Today, the debate also includes, for example bi-sexual, transgendered and intersexed persons.  In other words, this is not a discussion only about sex or marriage, it is, at a deeper level, a discussion about the elimination of all gender gender identity, even those markers physiologically given to us through creation.  This is, therefore, fundamentally about the Christian view of the body, the moral boundaries inherent in our creation, and the spiritual, sacramental nature of Christian marriage.

Conclusion

So, we end where we began at the start of the series.  We are engaged in a 50 year struggle.  I will not live to see the end of this struggle.  But, many of you will and you will be the faithful bearers of re-inserting the full Christian vision into the life and witness of the church. We need not shy away from the immensity of this task.  We must roll up our sleeves, build beautiful Christian families and patiently articulate the inter-connectedness of these various issues with the whole vision.  I am very confident that you can do this and do it with grace.  This does not lend itself to a quick fix.  We don’t need a better argument, we need to embody a deeper truth in our lives.  As Christians we must recognize how deeply we have been trapped by a whole array of sexual immorality ranging from pornography to fornication.  Our focus should be on the manifestation of holiness within the church.  We have much to do in our own midst.  The most important spiritual work we need to do is not within anyone “out there” but the face we meet in the mirror each morning.  Let us ask God’s help to make us holy so that the world will see that the church truly is the glorious bride of Christ.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.