“When God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work -- this is a gift of God. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart. I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on men: God gives a man wealth, possessions and honor, so that he lacks nothing his heart desires, but God does not enable him to enjoy them, and a stranger enjoys them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil,” [Ecclesiastes 5:19-6:2]
“Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" "Why do you ask me about what is good?" Jesus replied. "There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments." "Which ones?" the man inquired. Jesus replied, "`Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,' and `love your neighbor as yourself.'" "All these I have kept," the young man said. "What do I still lack?" Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth,” [Matthew 19:16-22]
God has truly blessed us. He blesses us in more ways than we probably take time to notice. But this past week we had a golden opportunity to stop for a moment and reflect on how Good God truly is and be thankful. And we have much for which we can be thankful. Do you ever find it ironic that “Black Friday” follows immediately after Thanksgiving Day? In some ways, that’s a tragedy. In an effort to bring business back into the “black,” the day after Thanksgiving has become both privately and corporately the retail business world’s “day of salvation.” And I need not hammer on the negative side of “Black Friday,” –I think we all have a pretty accurate idea of how people behave on this day. Unfortunately, some allow themselves to make the holiday season more about getting than giving.
For many, the material side of the holidays has left us feeling hollow and ungrateful. We can find ourselves resentful of the greed that is programmed into each successive generation because the spirit of the season has moved from gratitude to entitlement. What was once hailed as the Holiday of generosity has subtly become the holiday of expected and anticipated generosity of others. In all truth, the majority of the time the majority of places where Christmas was celebrated saw Christmas as an opportunity for greed. While Christ’s birth certainly is an occasion to celebrate, and the realization of what His birth means to us absolutely inspires generosity, the roots of this holiday are not Christian. What was historically a pagan celebration hailing back to the days of ancient Babylon, during the darkest days of the year people for millennia would celebrate “Saturnalia,” which are various forms of sun worship where a solar deity “died” (on the darkest day of the year) and “came back to life” (believed to be the reason for why days began to grow longer again). Some of our favorite traditional Christmas songs actually still contain elements from Saturnalia traditions, such as when bands of poorer “celebrants” would gather outside the homes of wealthier neighbors and sing “Now bring us some figgy pudding…” (if something was not given, the celebrants had the “right” to break into the home and take something –and this was considered “tradition” on this “holiday!”). Much like Samhain’s harvest festival was “baptized” and called “Holy Day” or “All Saints Day” (and “Holy Evening” beforehand –in Celtic, “Hallow-e’en), “Yuletide” was baptized and called “Christ’s birth Mass,” intending to honor the birth of Christ rather than the rebirth of a pagan sun god. For most of the 1500 years, by most of “Christendom,” “Christ’s Mass” (Christmas) was celebrated by a special mass in the Catholic Church, but then the populace would revel in paganism afterwards. Even many of the Protestants in Europe followed suit by celebrating the “traditional” forms of Christmas. Some find it surprising to learn that the Puritans actually forbid the celebration of Christmas because of it’s pagan roots and practice. It was not until the evangelistic age, governed by the spirit of the Church of Philadelphia, that the giving of thanks and the celebration of Christ’s birth became truly central to what we have come to know as Christmas. The contemporary Christmas Season, as we understand it, was truly transformed by Charles Dickens.
Dickens’ short story, “The Christmas Carol,” was introduced to Britain during an era when the Industrial Revolution with all of its progress (and evils) had left the British people feeling empty and longing for a better existence. In the years when revivals were truly changing the world, Dickens took the spotlight from greed at Christmas time and put it squarely on generosity and goodwill. People were ripe and ready for the change. So, in the early years of the Victorian Era, in 1843, Dickens introduced a story that truly transformed Christmas into a Christian Holiday. Christmas trees (divorced of their pagan roots from mainland Europe) and greeting cards soon took the place of the traditions of Saturnalia. It was Dickens who caused a nation (and the entire world) to take a moment, a special occasion, to look from the emptiness and despair of this world to the greater reason why we exist: We live to serve and love one another. And the Christmas holiday has been a world-wide, blessed occasion ever since. Many still remember how Christmas was a warm, family occasion, not centered on material gifts, but rather an opportunity to express love to one another. People didn’t expect much because the majority of people didn’t have much, but what they had, they gave. It was this humble spirit that drove the Era of Philadelphia, when material possessions didn’t mean nearly as much as generosity did.
Unfortunately, I believe the Age of Philadelphia is gone. And while the spirit of Philadelphia is still alive in many hearts, the predominant spirit of our age is no longer Philadelphia; we have long fallen prey to the Era of Laodicea. Laodicea is the most sorrowful case of all of the seven churches of Revelation. Why? Because it is the only church that Jesus addresses and does not have a single positive thing to say about the people in it. Jesus never leaves without a glimmer of hope; if the people will repent, He will heal them of their ailments. But the worst tragedy of their situation is that they don’t even realize that they have a problem –they don’t realize that their wealth and materialism had taken the place of Jesus and pushed Him outside! He is outside the “house” and is knocking, asking them to let Him inside. What a tragedy! Economic blessing had taken the place of relationship.
Our time is increasingly unstable and violent. There are elements of Marxism, communism, socialism, corporate imperialism, opportunism and lots of other “-isms” all around, but they are all economically-driven. The predominant sentiment of our time is that money saves. But remember what Jesus said: “You cannot serve both God and money,” [Matthew 6:24]. We are ever tempted to think that the right policies, the right politicians, the right economic philosophy or the right political movement will save us all. But there is a crucial and powerful observation that King Solomon made long ago: Having wealth isn’t enough. You have to be able to enjoy what you have –and only God allows us to do that [Ecclesiastes 5:19-6:2]. In order for us to enjoy what we have, we have to be humble and truly, deeply grateful for what we already have, not continuously longing for what we don’t (covetousness –this is a GRIEVOUS EVIL). But for the humble in heart, the truly thankful and the truly grateful, God enables overwhelming joy. When the rich young ruler approached Jesus and asked how to truly please God, Jesus said instructed him to be “a cut above” and sell all he had. Notice that this man claimed to have followed the letter of the Law to a “t,” but he still instinctively knew that he was missing something. And this man missed a golden opportunity to feel more rich than he ever had –and discover the joy that he knew he was missing. Have you ever tried to fill your emptiness with the material? During the 80’s and 90’s many people proverbially went shopping whenever they felt empty or depressed. While new purchases may give an occasional “high,” they never give a lasting feeling of fulfillment. Why? Because only Jesus can save, only God can grant fulfillment. Just ask Solomon; he tried and accumulated everything –and felt empty.
Wealth never satisfies unless God enables. And wealth that sits never satisfies. This is what Dickens was trying to portray in his short story: True wealth is manifest though opportunities of charity –giving out of a deep sense of love for others because Christ has given us all that He had! For this, we can be grateful! This is the spirit of Philadelphia. This is the spirit of Christmas. Do not lose this golden opportunity to let Christ’s Light shine in you and into the lives of others. During the darkest time of the year, look at the Christmas lights shine in the darkness, and remember, Jesus is the Light in the Darkness. We are entitled to nothing, but we have been given everything in Christ. We deserve eternal punishment, but God’s love has moved Him to show us love and grace though Jesus. We are entitled to hell, but God has given us heaven instead.
As a church, together, let’s focus on the true spirit of Christmas. What can we give that will leave a lasting, eternal impression? What can we give our community that says, “We love you, we care about you, we want to see you all in heaven, and you too can feel joy –lasting joy, because God is the Enabler of joy. Because God gave the greatest gift this world has ever received.”