A few weeks ago, a brouhaha erupted over the styles of cups that Starbucks unveiled for their 2015 holiday season. Previous cups had featured rainbows and snowflakes, but this year – gasp – they are plain red! A firestorm, headed by an outspoken social vlogger that proposed Christians should boycott Starbucks (as the vlogger held a Starbucks cup he presumably paid for in his hand).
Christians everywhere were (at least, supposedly) outraged. How dare anyone attack our Christmas? How dare they miss the real point of the season?
Every year, we see a blustery argument about how ‘the world’ is trying to take away what the church sees as “its” holiday. We expect that the ‘world’ should understand Christmas in the same way that we do. We think that it’s offensive to God, to Jesus, that the birth of the Messiah would be free from religious language and celebration. We – at least some of us – feel persecuted.
But I am afraid that the word does not mean what we think it means.
We have taken Christmas out of its historical and world-changing position in the New Testament and made it a fragile, finite, and absolutely static thing. We think that we are the champions of this Christmas, and that somehow, when we shout “Merry Christmas” louder than the others, that we are defending God.
Friends, I do not believe that God needs our defense.
Before there was “Christmas,” before there was the birth of Christ, there was a thousands of years old society of people, the Jews. These Jews were living under the oppressive rule of the Romans, who had appointed puppet Jewish leaders to do what the Romans wanted while ruling their fellow Jews. This is the kind of man that Herod, called ‘king of Judea’ in Luke 1, is. But while non-believers ruled Judea and puppet Jews kept the peace, the faithful remained.
It says that Zechariah the priest was one of those faithful, not someone who gave lip service to faith but who yearned for the day when God would make known his plan for Judea. Zechariah waited for good news, even though his role as father and husband was diminished because Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, had no son.
One day, Zechariah is serving as priest in the temple before God. He was not doing anything special but he was doing his job as he had done it hundreds of times before. Zechariah is inside the temple praying and offering up incense to God; outside, the people gathered to pray.
And then the angel of Lord appeared to Zechariah. It says that he was startled and gripped with fear – Zechariah was not used to seeing angels anymore than you or I might be! But let’s stop for a minute and consider his fear.
Is he afraid because an angel is a fearsome sight?
Is he afraid because the numbness of ritual has left him not expecting that God might show up?
Is he afraid because he knows the Roman officials won’t take kindly to a priest telling people that he saw an angel of God?
Is he afraid because if an angel is there, that God must be up to something and Zechariah must be involved?
What if it’s not “all of the above”?
No matter what the fear is caused by, the angel tells him, “Do not be afraid.”
In the midst of his aged, lonely solitude, the angel tells him that everything he hoped for will come true – that he will become a father, and that his family line will be used by God for great things.
The angel tells Zechariah that his son will be filled by the Holy Spirit, and that he would bring many people back to the Lord. Not only that – but Zechariah’s unborn son would be the messenger who went before the Lord. The Lord.
Before there was Christmas, there was the coming of the Lord. There was Advent – there was anticipation. There was the hope in what would be.
Before Jesus was born, there was a lonely, scared old man in the holy of holies, staring into the glowing face of an angel. Before Jesus was born, there was the promise.
Before the promise, there was darkness, sadness, decay, death, and fear. But into that darkness, into that world of fear was born John the Baptist, and then Jesus.
John 1:5 says that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.” The light – this Jesus – this good news – shines into the world that is hurting, broken, and without hope and it says HEY DARKNESS, YOU CAN’T WIN. YOU’VE ALREADY LOST. BECAUSE THE GOD OF THE UNIVERSE HAS SENT HIS ONE AND ONLY SON, HIMSELF, TO LIVE WITH YOU AND BE WITH YOU. YOU ARE DONE, DARKNESS, BECAUSE THESE PEOPLE ARE MINE.
Rather than worry about whether or not the world ‘gets’ that Jesus is in Christmas, why not introduce them to Advent? Why not remind them of the hope that we have in this wonderful light, the light of the same substance that reminded Zechariah that he was not alone, that God heard his prayers.
In our world today, people still need this light. They don’t need rhetoric or principles or writing Merry Christmas on our Starbucks cups. They don’t need ridicule or disdain or anger or further examples of the darkness that they see in their lives everyday. Martin Luther King Jr. said that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Jesus never said that we needed to keep Christ in Christmas because he is already there.
He is the creation of the world before there was a world.
He is song in the voices of our children and the hope in the hearts of our aged.
He is here, in the midst of our darkness and in the midst of our joy, reminding us in Advent that we are in the kingdom and in the not yet. We are in the exciting times, the changing times, the powerful times.
He is the light that cannot be kept out. All he asks is, will you let him shine through you?