“History is always written by the winners.” Like it or not, December 25th hasn’t always been about the birth of Jesus Christ. Before the Lord was born- and in fact, for centuries afterwards- the wintry day was most commonly identified with Saturnalia, a sprawling, brawling, wine-soaked Roman festival honoring a pagan god. After the Empire became the Holy Roman Empire early in the Fourth Century AD, Christians re-branded the pagan festival and gave the emerging Christian majority a cause for celebration. New believers wanted to continue their traditional time of feasting, and the Church found a convenient day for celebrating the birth of Christ.
So it’s accurate to say as many of us do that December 25th is about Jesus. But that’s only true because we won. The Emperor Constantine became a believer and the church suddenly enjoyed new influence and opportunity. It’s good to celebrate the birth of Christ and this is as good as day as any, I suppose.
But we must not get all huffy and defensive when people talk about Winter Holidays or Solstice or suggest that December 25th is not a religious holiday. The fact is, we’re not winning anymore and we haven’t won any new ground in the USA in a long, long time. For example, a Pew Poll out this week found that while nine of ten Americans celebrate Christmas, fully half enjoy it as a secular, cultural event rather than a religious one. And young people are more likely to celebrate in a secular fashion. We’re not winning anything here.
Elsewhere a long line of pollsters have found that the number of ardent followers of Christ in the USA continues to decline. What’s more, Millennials are less likely to evangelize than any previous generation. Clearly, somebody is winning hearts and minds in this country, but it’s not the church.
Perhaps we should resolve this year to become a little less defiant and a lot more effective. Unless you and I begin to influence our neighbors for the Kingdom and grow strong disciples in our homes, we may very well keep the faith but lose the holiday- not to mention the culture. Let’s make the most of a special holy day, but never take it for granted. History advances and the times are always a’changing. December 25th will continue to be about Jesus only if the church becomes contagious again.
Lift up the Cross!
It was inaccurate and misguided when church leaders in the 15th Century quoted Psalm 104:5 to argue that the Earth does not revolve or orbit the sun. Likewise, it is just as misinformed to insist that John 14:14 requires that every Christian conclude every prayer by invoking the name of Jesus as some kind of ritualistic incantation. In Christ’s world as in our own, doing something in the name of another person involved acting according to his purposes, in his interests, according to his desires. When you and I are heard in Heaven, it is due to the atonement of Christ and his resurrection; the intervention of his Holy Spirit in our lives; and the fact that his interests and priorities are reflected in our praying. When those things happen, we are praying in the name of Jesus, whether or not we intone his name at the end. (See Christ’s actual instructions for correct prayer in Matthew 6: 9 – 13.)
You and I are engaged in spiritual warfare, so it can be useful to think of yourself as a warrior. But it’s even more important to select the right battlefield. There were many brave, well armed American paratroopers who actually missed all the drama of D-Day because they were mistakenly dropped miles from the field of battle and found themselves slogging in darkness through cow pastures and pear orchards. As believers, it is possible to become so militant in the face of a hostile, secular world that we become defensive about everything. Every disagreement hints of armed conflict. If we were truly as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves, the way Jesus directed us to be, we would pick our battles more carefully. We should be prepared to engage the forces of darkness, but let’s be sure we’re on Normandy Beach and not thrashing about aimlessly in some insignificant brier patch!
For example, it’s too bad that our secular culture learned to love homosexuals before we did. Of course sodomy is a sin, but whatever happened to the old axiom about loving the sinner but hating the sin? We spent 20 years regarding elections and letters to congressmen as spiritual warfare because we failed to understand that “our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12) We should have trusted the Gospel more and the government less; the Bible more and the Constitution less. Now young people look at us and wonder if we’re really on God’s side, or just the wrong side of history.
God gave us a Gospel that is powerful, sophisticated and complex. He never, ever tried to reduce the Truth to a formula, a slogan or a t-shirt. When you and I try, we generally wind up misquoting Jesus. We should all pray more and talk less. We should quote more Scripture and less political boiler plate. We should remember that Mohammed called for Jihad but Jesus calls for love; and that we are still followers of Jesus. We must work hard to rightly divide the Word of God without prejudice…
And lift up the Cross!
Next week: Bill O’Reilly’s book , Killing Jesus. Is it fact or fiction? I’ll let you know what I think.