Sermon title:  A TALE OF TWO CHRISTMASES

Romans 14:4-18

   

                            Immanuel Baptist Church – Sunday, December 9, 2018

 

 

 

 

If you were to visit Japan you would find

that only around 1% of the population even claim to be Christian.

 

The vast majority practice Buddhism and Shintoism.

 

They do not worship the God of the Bible,

and don’t look to Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

 

But, if you visit Japan this month

you will find them celebrating Christmas.

 

If you go window shopping downtown,

you will see store windows decorated for Christmas

and brightly-lit Christmas trees in public places.

 

You will see the Buddhist and Shinto Japanese

out shopping for Christmas presents.

 

They greet each other with “Meri  Kuri – su - masu,”

meaning “Merry Christmas.”

 

And you will find that they’re sending each other Christmas cards.

 

Young couples can be seen strolling through city streets

to look at the Christmas lights together.

 

And a romantic meal on Christmas Eve is so popular

that you might find it difficult

to reserve a table at a restaurant in Tokyo.

 

The Japanese don’t believe in Jesus,

but they have a tradition of celebrating

by eating fried chicken on Christmas Day.

 

And they also enjoy what they call “Christmas cake,”

which is a sponge cake

decorated with strawberries and whipped cream,

and a figure of Santa Claus.

--------------------------------

 

You may know that one of the hymns in our hymnbook—

hymn #23—is taken from the 9th Symphony

of Ludwig van Beethoven,

originally written and sung in German.

 

The title in English is “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”

and it begins with the line,

“Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee,

God of glory, Lord of love.”

 

Well, the Buddhist and Shinto Japanese,

who don’t know the God of the Bible,

and who don’t believe in Jesus—

they enjoy listening to and even singing

the German-language original version of this hymn

at Christmastime.

 

The words were written way back in the year 1785

by German poet Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller,

and Beethoven set it to music in 1824.

 

But it came to Japan during World War I

when soldiers of the German Kaiser Wilhelm

were held as prisoners of war in Japan,

and they sang their beloved music

in the prison camps.

 

The Japanese liked the way it sounded,

and took up singing it themselves.

 

They call it “daiku” in Japanese—meaning “number nine,”

because it comes from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

 

The original lyrics Beethoven used

aren’t quite as Christ-centered as we find in our English hymn,

but they do conclude by saying,

 

Brothers, above the starry canopy

There must dwell a loving father.

 

Do you fall in worship, you millions?

World, do you know your creator?

 

Seek him in the heavens;

Above the stars must he dwell.

 

German is a foreign language to the Japanese,

and they don’t know the meaning of the words,

but choirs all over Japan learn to sing the German lyrics.

 

One choir in the city of Osaka has ten thousand people in it

and is known as “the Number Nine Chorus.”

---------------------------------------

 

That’s what the adult Japanese do at Christmastime.

 

But parties are often held for children.

 

They play games and dance and eat Christmas cake

decorated with Santa Claus.

 

They look to “Santa-san,” as they call him

as a gift-bringer—

along with Hotei - osho,

the Japanese god of good fortune,

pictured as a Buddha

with a big belly and a sack full of toys.

--------------------------------

 

Why have I described in such detail

how the non-Christian Japanese celebrate the holiday?

 

Because it proves the point

that there are really two very different Christmas holidays:

-- the biblical celebration

of the virgin birth of our Lord Jesus, and

-- the secular celebration

centered around Santa Claus, gifts, festive lights,

decorated evergreen trees,

and people getting together

to have a good time.

 

Christians in America usually blend the two,

sharing in festive gatherings,

sharing holiday meals,

giving gifts, sending cards—

maybe even featuring a jolly St. Nicholas—

all the while honoring Jesus

as “the reason for the season.”

 

But much of that Christmas celebrating

can also take place without honoring Jesus,

as we can see from the way it is done

in Buddhist and Shinto Japan.

 

And, as we go about celebrating,

we should be aware of that.

 

Now the point of this sermon

is NOT that we need to get all Puritanical about it

and stick to reading the Bible and singing hymns,

dispensing with all the celebrations.

 

No, that would be going overboard.

 

But, we should always keep in mind

that Jesus is the reason for the season.

----------------------------

 

If you follow Route 138 north into Canton,

you’ll see a huge billboard sign there

that is put up every year around this time,

that says, “Keep Christ in Christmas.”

 

But some people do literally take “Christ” out of “Christmas”

by using “X-mas” as a shortened name for the holiday.

 

Now, that might seem at first glance

to be part of the secular “war against Christmas”

carried on by the ACLU and various atheist groups.

 

They go to court to have creches and manger scenes

removed from public places.

 

But, actually, the use of “X-mas”

wasn’t always as sinister as it seems now.

 

It goes back centuries.

 

Some trace it back to the Greek letter Chi  [pron. Kai or Ki]

which looks like out letter “X”

and which is the first letter of the Greek “Christos,”

meaning Christ.

 

So, the letter “X” could be used to represent Christ,

and “X-mas” could legitimately be used

to stand for “Christmas”

without any attempt to remove “Christ,”

according to that view.

 

However, the vast majority of Americans

don’t speak Greek,

and don’t know the Greek alphabet.

 

So, the use of the term “X-mas” today

may amount to X-ing out “Christ”

for many people.

 

And some Christians see the substitution of “X” for “Christ”

as part of the same “war against Christmas”

waged by the ACLU and atheist organizations.

 

There is a lot of disagreement about it,

even within the Christian community.

 

So, the term “X-mas” is now

one of the controversies surrounding the Christmas holiday.

 

How odd it is

that shop-keepers in Shinto-Buddhist Japan

freely greet customers with “Merry Christmas,”

while store employees

in once-Christian America

are told to say “Happy holidays” instead!

 

Those who push for a multi-cultural society

argue that saying “Merry Christmas”

is offensive to non-Christians.

 

But, is it really?

 

In a survey of American Buddhists,

the Pew Research Center concluded

that 76% of Buddhists living in this country

actually celebrate Christmas themselves.

 

So, they certainly wouldn’t be offended

if someone offered them Christmas greetings.

 

And it doesn’t seem to bother

the non-Christian Japanese who smile

and enthusiastically greet each other

with “Meri Kuri – su - masu.”

 

Meanwhile, here in the U.S.A.,

some now see saying “Merry Christmas!”

as a political statement—

not bowing to pressure to be ‘politically correct’

by saying “Happy holidays!”

----------------------------------------

 

In the long view of history

the ACLU and today’s atheist organizations

are relatively ‘new kids on the block.’

 

But controversy over Christmas goes back a long way.

 

In 1647 a revolution in England

led by Puritans

overthrew the British monarchy

and executed King Charles I.

 

On of the first acts of the new government

was to outlaw Christmas.

 

The Puritans were offended by rowdy behavior of revelers.

 

They pointed to the drinking, gambling, and sexual immorality

that often accompanied Christmas feasts.

 

Here in Massachusetts the kinder,

gentler Pilgrims settled in Plymouth.

 

But the Puritans soon controlled the government

of Boston and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

 

In  1659  the Massachusetts legislature

made celebrating Christmas a criminal offense.

 

Their law decreed,

 

“Whosoever shall be found observing

any such day as Christmas or the like,

either by forbearing of labor,

feasting, or any other way”

was subject to a fine.

 

Happily, they repealed that law around 25 years later.

 

Massachusetts residents no longer had to fear

being fined if they took the day off work on December 25

to celebrate Christmas.

--------------------------------

 

Actually, controversy over religious holidays

goes way back,

well before the time of the Pilgrims and Puritans.

 

In the very early Christian churches

established back in the First Century

in and around Jerusalem

and throughout the Roman Empire,

there were holiday controversies

that threatened to split

some of the early churches.

 

At that time it was the Jewish holidays,

that gave rise to disputes among Christians—

holidays like Passover, Yom Kippur and Hanukah,

as well as the Saturday Sabbath.

 

The first Christians in Jerusalem

were all Jews, just like Jesus and the 12 Apostles.

 

And, as the Apostle Paul and other missionaries

traveled abroad to spread the Gospel,

their first stop was usually the Jewish synagogue

in each city.

 

They would tell their fellow Jews

that the Messiah promised in the Old Testament

had finally come.

 

And they would show them

how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures,

proving him to be the long-awaited Christ.

 

After converting as many of the local Jews as possible,

the Apostles would then turn to the Gentiles in each city,

and share the Gospel with them, too.

 

The result was that the early churches

usually had both Jews and non-Jews among their members.

 

The Jewish Christians had all grown up

celebrating the Jewish holidays,

and many of them continued doing so.

 

In fact, some of them thought the non-Jewish Christians

should also start celebrating the Jewish holidays—

even telling them it would be a sin not to do so.

 

To make matters worse,

some of the Gentile Christians

told the Jewish believers to quit celebrating them,

and give up their traditions.

 

You can imagine the controversy this generated—

even hard feelings and hostility inside the churches.

 

Just picture how it would be

if half the members of Immanuel Baptist Church

insisted that the Church should hold

special Yom Kippur observances,

and the other half of the church

felt very strongly that no such thing ought to happen!

 

Suppose, too, that those on each side of the issue

denounced those on the other side of the issue as sinners.

 

Well, that’s the type of situation

the Apostle Paul had to deal with,

trying to promote peace and unity

in the early churches.

[  OPEN  ]

And we have an example in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome,

which we read from in this morning’s Responsive Reading.

 

We read from Romans Chapter 14.

 

So, if we look now at Romans 14, beginning with Verse 4,

we’ll see how the Lord inspired Paul

to write about that holiday controversy.

 

4 Who are you to judge someone else's servant?

To his own master he stands or falls.

And he will stand,

for the Lord is able to make him stand.

 

5 One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike.

Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.

 

So, Paul is talking about holidays here.

 

He had in mind the Jewish holidays

that were the center of so much controversy

in the First Century churches.

 

But the same principles apply to Christmas.

 

The Puritans here in Massachusetts

must not have been reading this passage

when they passed their laws outlawing the holiday.

 

In the next verse Paul continues,

 

6 He who regards one day as special,

does so to the Lord.

 

He who eats meat, eats to the Lord,

for he gives thanks to God;

and he who abstains, does so to the Lord

and gives thanks to God.

 

In Verse 10, Paul adds,

 

10 You, then, why do you judge your brother?

Or why do you look down on your brother?

For we will all stand before God's judgment seat.

11 It is written:

"'As surely as I live,' says the Lord,

'every knee will bow before me;

every tongue will confess to God.'"

12 So then,

each of us will give an account of himself to God.

 

13 Therefore let us stop

passing judgment on one another.

Instead, make up your mind

not to put any stumbling block or obstacle

in your brother's way.

 

Part of the holiday controversy

back then in the First Century

involved food,

because many Jewish Christians

were still keeping a kosher diet.

 

To them, kosher food was “clean”

and non-kosher food was “unclean” and forbidden.

 

And some were trying

to get the non-Jews to eat kosher meals,

and some of the non-Jews were trying

to get the Jewish believers to give up kosher cooking.

 

You might compare it in Massachusetts

to the Puritan law that imposed a fine

on anyone feasting on Christmas dinner—

or someone today

who has concerns about eating ham or pork or fried chicken.

 

Paul wrote,

 

14 As one who is in the Lord Jesus,

I am fully convinced

that no food is unclean in itself.

 

But if anyone regards something as unclean,

then for him it is unclean.

 

15 If your brother is distressed

because of what you eat,

you are no longer acting in love.

 

Do not by your eating destroy your brother

for whom Christ died.

16 Do not allow what you consider good

to be spoken of as evil.

 

So, if we invite to our home for Christmas

a new Christian from a Jewish background,

we might want to serve turkey

instead of ham—

not that there is anything wrong with eating ham,

but just to avoid causing distress to the new believer.

 

Paul concludes,

 

17 For the kingdom of God

is not a matter of eating and drinking,

but of righteousness, peace

and joy in the Holy Spirit,

18 because anyone who serves Christ in this way

is pleasing to God and approved by men.

 

Of course, there are things we might need to avoid at Christmas.

 

If our place of secular employment

is known to hold office parties

or warehouse parties

where people get drunk,

flirt with married co-workers,

or other such behavior,

Paul’s counsel in Chapter 13 be helpful.

 

At Romans 13, beginning with Verse 13,

Paul wrote,

 

13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime,

not in orgies and drunkenness,

not in sexual immorality and debauchery,

not in dissension and jealousy.

 

14 Rather, clothe yourselves

with the Lord Jesus Christ,

and do not think about how to gratify

the desires of the sinful nature.

 

That advice is sufficient

to curb rowdy behavior.

 

There’s no need to ban the holiday as the Puritans did,

throwing the baby out with the bath water.

----------------------------------

 

So, yes, there really are two Christmases.

 

Satan the devil may have planned

to distract people from Christ.

 

And some people may be distracted

by the attention given to Santa Claus and snowmen.

 

But, I think that Satan’s trick backfired on him.

 

If everything about Christmas were purely religious,

focused on Jesus,

non-believers would have abandoned the holiday entirely.

 

But in our increasingly secular society,

the secular Christmas

ensures that the holiday continues.

 

And, mixed in with the jingle bells

there are still Christian hymns—

sermons set to music—

that fill the air even in public places.

 

I remember back years ago when I was a young atheist--

I remember being moved emotionally

by Christmas lights and music in public places

and shortly after that

I began to believe in God again.

 

I think the Christmas music helped soften my heart,

and prepare me to become a believer.

 

Even this past week, I was sitting in a doctor’s waiting room,

and noticed that the speaker system

was playing secular Christmas tunes

about Santa Claus, jingle bells and snowmen.

 

But then the next song that came on

was a hymn straight out of our hymn book.

 

It was a Christmas hymn that contained the Gospel message,

as many Christmas hymns do.

 

Many of them are like Gospel sermons set to music.

 

Then it occurred to me,

that if there wasn’t all that secular holiday music,

the radio wouldn’t play Christian.

 

Our secular society wouldn’t want to hear them.

 

But they do go along with a mix

of secular and religious Christmas carols.

 

So, the secular celebration

is actually keeping the biblical message in the public eye.

 

It makes me think of what the Apostle Paul wrote

at Philippians 1:18, where he said,

about certain phony preachers,

 

“The important thing is that in every way,

whether from false motives or true,

Christ is preached.

And because of this I rejoice.”

 

 

So, I rejoice that there is this secular Christmas,

alongside the real biblical Christmas,

because the secular celebrations

keep the public listening to

the Christmas carols that carry a biblical message.

 

And, who knows who may hear,

and be moved to look more closely

at the real story of Christmas

and their own personal need for our Lord Jesus.