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The mall I walk in most mornings began clearing the space for their giant Christmas tree / Santa’s castle on October 27, and the tree began to be assembled already on the day before Halloween. Yes, it seems to begin a little earlier every year and, not to be outdone, the silly season that just is the so-called “War on Christmas” has already started, too. Evangelical Christians are among those who are raging against Starbucks for featuring just plain red paper coffee cups this year. Gone are the images of past years like snowmen, ornaments, snowflakes, and pine boughs. You know, real core Gospel images like that. I am sure that just drinking a double-soy cinnamon dolce frappuccino with whipped cream will suck God’s grace clean out of your soul if the cup doesn’t feature an image vaguely reminiscent of Frosty or Rudolph on it.
Social media has lit up with responses to all this, and I guess this blog gets to nestle in with the rest of them. But since I spend my days pondering all things preaching, I will take a slightly different tack on all this to suggest that we in the church don’t really need the world to declare war on Christmas or to eclipse Jesus from sight on account of all the extraneous holiday folderol. We are pretty good at doing this to ourselves within the church.
Just do a Google search for suggested packaged Christmas sermon series and you’ll get the idea soon enough. Now, full disclaimer here: it’s fully possible–and I guess I would have to say I hope it’s more likely than not–that individual preachers may well preach full-throated, textual, Gospel sermons in the midst of some of what I am about to highlight. But given that the slick promotions of some of these series as well as the kitschy, catchy packaging of it all to play into cultural signs and symbols of the holiday season, my hope can be on the dim side.
Increasingly in recent years especially the megachurches who have budgets to support Hollywood-quality video promotions for upcoming sermons are producing videos and ideas that seem to have far more to do with how society views the holidays/Christmas than what the church has traditionally taught. There is, for instance, a sermon series package titled “Uncluttered” that features on the promo image a Santa’s cap, an ornament, and a string of lights. The series promises to help people unclutter their lives during the crazy holiday season so as to focus on better things. “The Real Stories of Christmas” series makes note that although it will tell the Bible’s Christmas story, plenty of space will be devoted to people’s other favorite Christmas stories, including stories of people’s “biggest Christmas fails.”
Then there is the “Socks & Underwear” sermon series focusing on the gifts we get that we don’t want but perhaps still need (Jesus = Socks/Underwear apparently). “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and “A Christmas Carol” using the famous Dickens story as the outline for sermon series are also all on the list (we all have to deal with ghosts of Christmas past after all). Another series called “Unwrapped” promises to get at the real meaning of things–there’s even a promo video featuring that deeply biblical song “The Little Drummer Boy” in the background.
This isn’t Starbucks and plain red cups. This isn’t City Hall banning a creche from its front yard. This isn’t the White House sending out “Happy Holidays” cards instead of “Merry Christmas” cards. This is what the church is doing on its own, on the inside, in its pulpits. Again, probably within any number of these series are faithful Gospel sermons, and this blog may garner a few comments from fellow preachers who will testify to this. I’ll be heartened.
But the fact is that a whole lot more of the culture’s takes on Christmas–the craziness, the family dynamics, the gifts, the tinsel, the music, the TV and movie references–make it into the church than was once true. How many churches still even use the term “Advent” for the run-up to Christ’s birth? How many know that a focus on the Advent yet to come is supposed to be part of our preparation for remembering the first Advent (and that the Olivet Discourses and their apocalyptic imagery are part of that too)? How many make room for John the Baptist’s rude Advent presence, calling all of us–starting with the most religious among us–to repent or else we’ll never get to Jesus in the first place?
I can’t worry about what anyone else thinks about Christmas or whether out of deference to cultural diversity people opt for “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” But I do care that we in the church still get it right and on that count, we have things to ponder. But that’s more uncomfortable to do than fulminating against plain red cups of coffee.