Bad Christmas Songs

One of the ways you can tell it’s Christmastime is because of the music. However, not all Christmas music is created equal.

Every year around Christmas, my wife likes to put on Christmas music and decorate the house with the kids. A few years ago, she put on a children’s Christmas music album. It wasn’t long before my four year old daughter came into the kitchen with a concerned look on her face and asked, “Why was mommy kissing Santa Claus?”

She had heard the song on the kids album and was understandably concerned, because, as a child, she didn’t understand the basic premise of the song which makes it cute and fun: that “Santa” is actually the kid’s dad dressed up in a Santa outfit, and the kissing is therefore completely appropriate.

Without that piece of the puzzle, this song is quite confusing and disturbing! Think about it: it’s the story of a young child, excited about Christmas, who comes out of his room late at night to discover that his mom is making out with Santa! How incredibly traumatic! Not only is his mother being unfaithful to his father, but on Christmas?! And with Santa?! Talk about disillusionment! Where’s dad? And Mom is seriously doing this behind dad’s back, in his own house?! And Santa… he’s a monster who is ripping apart our family! You can keep the presents Santa; I just want my family back, and I want mom to stop doing things like this to dad!

Or how about Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer? It’s essentially the story of a reindeer who gets bullied by the other reindeer, and the only time they want him around is when they need him to do something for them. So basically, they treat him terribly and then use him when it’s convenient to them…

Furthermore, if Santa apparently “sees you when you’re sleeping” and “sees when you’re awake”, and “he knows if you’ve been bad or good” — and he keeps a list of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice… well then that means that Santa knew that Rudolf was getting bullied, but he didn’t do anything about it!

Rather than judging him by the content of his character, they were judging him by the color of his nose…

There are some really good Christmas songs out there though; songs written by people for whom the Christmas message completely changed their lives and transformed them at their very core, and there is nothing they can do to stop themselves from erupting in song as a result of it.

They say things like: Joy to the World, the Lord has Come! Joy to the World, the Savior reigns! No more will sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground: he comes to make his blessings flow – as far as the curse is found!

They sang rich theology and wonderful truths: Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity! Born that man no more may die! — Born to raise the sons of Earth, Born to give us second birth!

That’s a song written by somebody who had something to sing about!

The very first Christmas carol was sung by Mary, the mother of Jesus, and it is known as “The Magnificat” because it begins with the words: My soul magnifies the Lord.

The occasion for this song was the Annunciation: the announcement to Mary that she was going to have a baby, who would be the long-awaited Savior of the World. It was Mary’s response to the news that for a reason based only on God’s sovereign choice, God had chosen to place his favor on her and chose her to be the one to bear, to care for, to raise the Messiah… Jesus.

Here’s what she sang:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)

In this song, Mary sings about God’s attributes, God’s purposes in history, and God’s incredible work of opposing the proud but exalting the humble.

May we humble ourselves before Him today, see what He has done for us, and receive His grace: the unmerited favor which He has shown us.

Then you’ll really have something to sing about this Christmas!

When Linus Dropped His Blanket

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Like many families, there are a few movies that we like to watch together at Christmas. One of them is Elf, the other is A Charlie Brown Christmas.

This past Sunday I preached a message titled “Paradoxes and Promises” from Luke 2:8-38. The beginning of that text is the famous Christmas passage about the angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds who were watching their flocks in a nearby field – the same text that Linus reads at the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

I mentioned in my sermon some interesting things I had learned about the film, particularly that Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip, was a devout Christian,  and when he was asked in 1965 to create a Christmas special for CBS featuring the Peanuts characters, Schulz agreed… with one caveat: he would only do it if they would let him include the story of the birth of Jesus.

CBS executives were hesitant about including this, but because Peanuts was so popular, they conceded and agreed to allow Schulz to include it in the show. However, both the producer and the director tried hard to dissuade him from including it, first of all because they thought it would be boring to have a scripture reading in a television program, and secondly, because even then it was considered controversial. Schulz refused to budge. He reportedly said at one point, “We must tell this story! If we don’t do it, who will?”

Schulz won out, and as a result, for the past 50 years, millions of families and scores of children have watched A Charlie Brown Christmas and heard the story of Jesus and “what Christmas is all about.”

After service, a friend came up to me and told me something I had never realized about that scene where Linus tells the Christmas story: He drops his blanket – his security blanket.

Linus NEVER drops his blanket. This is the only time in the history of Peanuts that Linus ever let go of his security blanket – and it was intentional.

While sharing the message of “what Christmas is all about,” Linus drops his blanket at the exact moment he says the words, “fear not!”

Here’s the video of that scene, check it out:

The message it communicates is that because Jesus has come into the world to be our Savior, we can let go of the things we have been clinging to and looking for security in, and we can find true security in Him.

If you look again, that’s not the only subtle message Charles Schulz put into the scene. Notice how when Linus starts speaking about Jesus, that message takes center stage, and gets put in the spotlight. 

May that be true of us this Christmas as well: that we put Jesus at center stage, and give Him the spotlight, and as we do so, may we find true peace and security in Him.

Always Winter, Never Christmas

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The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis’ classic first book in the Chronicles of Narnia series, tells the story of 4 children: Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter Pevensie. The setting is World War II, and the the children have been sent to stay with family friends in the English countryside because of the German attack on London.

As they are exploring and playing in the house, Lucy hides in a wardrobe, only to find that it is a portal to another world. As she passes through the portal she finds herself in Narnia – a cold place, covered in snow. She meets some creatures, who tell her about the bleak condition of Narnia: it is a land under the curse of an evil witch. Every day is as if it is “always winter but never Christmas.”

This is perhaps one of the most apt and poetically concise descriptions of hopelessness ever written: “Always winter, but never Christmas.”

2016 hasn’t been a great year on some fronts. Terror attacks in Europe, death and destruction in Syria. Maybe you have experienced some things in your own life, that make you acutely aware that you are living in a land that is under a curse – where it feels like you dwell in perpetual winter.

As Lucy and Edmund found themselves in Narnia, suddenly the children heard the sound of sleigh bells approaching. They figured it was the evil witch, so they hid. However, it was not the witch, it was Father Christmas!

Having been held captive by the witch, he had finally gotten free. “I have broken through at last,” he says. “She has kept me out for a long time, but her magic is weakening. Aslan is on the move! A merry Christmas! Long live the true King!”

We live in a world where there is a curse, where there is winter and cold and darkness, where there is pain and hardship – yet ever before us is the promise of Christmas: that Jesus has come to the world to save us.

Advent isn’t only about looking to the past, it’s also about looking to the future – to the fact that the curse is being broken, that the True King is coming and the winter will one day be over and the warmth and life of Spring will come.

Relient K wrote a song a few years back about this very thing:

Advent Meditations: 13 – The Reason the Son of God Appeared

The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. – 1 John 3:8

I have been away for a few days from this because my wife gave birth to our baby girl this past weekend! We feel very blessed.

With every new life comes the promise of hope and joy and the light that this new life will bring into the world, but over every life there looms the shadow of a cloud on the horizon… a debt which will one day come due: the inevitability of death.

Every child is born into a world that is cracked and broken, with remnants of what it was originally intended and designed to be and we live with a lingering memory – an ancestral notion of how things were meant to be.

The message of Christmas is that the Son of God appeared to destroy the works of the devil – to restore things to the way they were meant to be. This is the hope of the Gospel and the hope that we celebrate at Advent: that the day is coming, and is ever nearer, when this hope of ours will be realized. The meaning of Christmas is that there is a new inevitability: that that day is coming, and will be here before we realize it.

The Son of God appeared to destroy the works of the devil: in the world, and also in each of us. He came to make the world what it was meant to be, and to make each of us what we were meant to be.

Joy to the world – the Lord has come!  The Savior reigns!

 

Advent Meditations: 12 – The Date and Details of Christmas

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The first Christmas sermon I ever preached was on the topic of whether Jesus was really born on December 25th. My point was that most scholars believe was that Jesus was not born on December 25th, but probably in September, because the shepherds were sleeping outside with their flocks at night, which is not something that would be done in the winter months when it was colder at night. Furthermore, this view is based on the tracking of the stars, which some say would place the North Star in the right place in the sky sometime in autumn.

The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was in 336AD, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (the first Christian Roman Emperor). A few years later, Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th December.

Prior to 336AD, December 25th was when pagans celebrated the winter solstice. Constantine took an existing holiday and changed the focus of it and the substance of what was being celebrated. It is remarkable that in the first few hundred years of the church, the main Christian holiday was Easter, when they celebrated the death and resurrection of Jesus. Christmas only began to be celebrated much later on.

However, while that is all interesting information, I somewhat regret having spent the time given me during my first Christmas sermon on this topic. Having had the attention of people on that day, I wish I would not have focused on dates and details, but on the substance of what Christmas is about.

You see – it doesn’t really matter what day we celebrate the birth of Jesus, what matters is the fact of the incarnation. If December 25th is the day that our culture has chosen to celebrate that, then great! I’m happy to celebrate it then or any other time! But if our whole culture is open to talking about it at this time, then what a great opportunity that is to talk about the gospel and the meaning of the incarnation on a day when more people will set foot inside a church than any other day of the year. What matters is not when the incarnation happened, but that it did indeed happen!

There are some people who have a “mentality for the marginal” – a “preoccupation with the peripheral”. They focus all of their time and attention to theories about dates and details, the movement of stars and how exactly the star did lead the magi, or how exactly did the Red Sea split, or how did Jonah survive in the belly of the fish – they are concerned with gathering information on and debating peripheral matters of theology, which are tentative and have very little spiritual significance.

It is not to say that such interests are bad, except when this preoccupation with the peripheral takes one away from a focus on the great central things of the gospel – the holiness of God, the terribleness of sin, the helplessness of man and the love of God; the death of Christ, the resurrection from the dead, justification by faith, the work of the Holy Spirit and the return of Christ and the final judgment. Some people are easily sidetracked from these things by the latest speculations and theories and tidbits regarding things which have little ultimate significance.

What is wonderful about the Christmas story – the story of the incarnation – is that if you will allow it to, it will refocus you onto that which is important. It will help you keep the main things the main things. It re-centers us, by reminding us of the big picture: that the world is under the dark cloud of sin and death, but God, in his love, has sent us a savior: Christ the Lord, who is none other than God himself come to us in  human flesh. And if anyone puts their faith in Him, they will not be put to shame, but they will be saved, justified, forgiven and redeemed, and have life everlasting.

 

Advent Meditations: 11 – Zechariah’s Song

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“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David.

Zechariah was a village priest with a barren wife.

To be barren, in those days, was considered to be a curse from God, because of how important children were to several aspects of life. Nowadays it is not uncommon for women to say, “I don’t think I want to have children” – but if a woman were to say this in the ancient world, those around her would be taken back and say, “What? Do you have a death wish?”

Children were necessary economically, to have more workers in your family business, boys in particular were necessary for community security, and most importantly, children were necessary for personal security: in a society with no social welfare system and no social security, one was completely dependent on family and friends to take care of you in old age. Women in particular were at risk, because men had lower life-expectancy, so it was likely that they would live the final years and perhaps decades of their lives as widows, and if they didn’t have children, then their future was very uncertain and scary, because there was no guarantee that someone would be there to care for them and provide for them in old age.

So you can image how excited a woman like Elizabeth would be to find out that though she had been barren for years, now, in some way, advanced in years though she be, God had allowed her to conceive a son.

You can imagine how a man like Zechariah, the village priest, his life always in the spotlight of public scrutiny, must have been overjoyed to hear that finally his wife was pregnant! After years of people whispering and wondering what was wrong in his home that had caused God to “curse” them by not giving them a baby… People can be cruel, and you can imagine the relief and the sense of justification that came with the news that they would finally have a baby.

When Zechariah first got the news that he would have a son, he refused to believe it. It seemed impossible to him that this could actually happen, and as a result of his unbelief, God made him lose his voice for the duration of his wife’s pregnancy.

But when Zechariah finally got his voice back, after months of not being able to speak, and having to write things on a tablet in order to communicate, what was the first thing he did?  Did he complain, that God had taken away his voice for months?  No, HE SANG!  He sang a song of rejoicing and praising God.

And what’s most interesting about Zechariah’s song is this:  he doesn’t sing for joy primarily because he got his voice back, nor does he sing because his reproach has been taken away with the birth of his son. No, Zechariah’s song in Luke 1:67-89 is all about the Messiah!

It is commonly known an Zechariah’s Prophecy, but it is in the form of a song which he sang. The thing that set Zechariah’s heart on fire, was the idea that God was sending the Messiah – Jesus!   Before Zechariah even mentions his own son – who would have an incredibly important role to play as the forerunner to the Messiah – John the Baptist – first Zechariah sings about Jesus, who at this point was still in the womb. And he says: “Blessed be the Lord, for he has VISITED and redeemed his people.”

The coming of Jesus is the visitation of God to the world to redeem his people.

This is the message of Christmas, and Zechariah’s song – one of the first Christmas songs ever sung – was all about that: The visitation of God to this world to bring redemption.

 

 

Advent Meditations: 10 – Christmas Joy

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And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. – Luke 2:10-11

What is the joy of this season?    Is it Tradition?  Family?  Giving and receiving?

The thing about each of these, is that the joy of these things is something very temporal and easily lost.

If the joy of Christmas is family, then what about those who have no family?  Does this season hold no joy for them?

If the joy of Christmas is tradition, then what is there for those who have suffered loss of loved ones – or even of financial resources?  For them, Christmas will be pure pain.
If the joy of Christmas is tied to traditions: decorating a house, eating certain foods, doing certain things – then if those things are no longer possible, because you had to give up the house, or because a family member passed away, or any other reason, then Christmas will not be a time of joy, but of pain and heartache.

If the joy of Christmas is in giving and receiving, then once again, what about those who have nothing to give and/or no one to receive from?  If the joy of Christmas is in giving and receiving, then Christmas brings loneliness and shame rather than joy.

These things are what are commonly held by many people to be the joys of Christmas, but let me tell you: these should not be – they cannot be – the wellspring of joy that Christmas brings, because it is only a matter of time, before all of these things run dry…and make Christmas a time of pain and bitter longing rather than life-giving joy.

What is the true joy of Christmas?  It is this: A Savior is born to you, who is Christ the Lord.

One of the verses in the Bible that I find most moving is Matthew 1:21:

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins – Matthew 1:21

This is the joy of Christmas: that though you were lost, God pursued you and found you!   That though you were without hope, God came near to you to give you hope that extends beyond the grave!  That though you were destined for darkness and death, God broke into time and space to bring you light and life!

That is a joy that doesn’t disappear when financial resources dry up!  That is a joy that doesn’t grow dimmer as loved ones pass away – but rather grows all the more vibrant and beautiful!

May this be the joy of Christmas for you!

And may we not teach our children, whether in word or in deed, to find the joy of Christmas primarily in tradition or in giving or receiving, or even in family – but in the hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

Advent Meditations: 9 – No Room at the Inn

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn – Luke 2:7

It is striking how many details came together at the birth of Jesus; so many separate strands came together at one time and place to prepare the perfect setting for his coming – political movements, an empire-wide census which brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, a star in the sky which directed Magi to Bethlehem.

The coming of Jesus into the world happened at a time and in a way that we can clearly see was providentially directed by and planned by God.

Don’t you think then, that the God who can align the stars, the God who can bring down and raise up political leaders, the God who can coordinate a census at just the right time, so that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, according to the prophecy… don’t you think that such a sovereign God could have also seen to it that there be an available guest room in Bethlehem for the burgeoning family to stay in?

Of course He could have. But He didn’t.

You see, it isn’t a question of what God could have done, it’s a question of what God willed to do.  (The same is true in our lives, by the way).

God could have made sure there was a place at the inn. God could have brought Jesus into the world in a wealthy family.  But what God willed to do was to have Jesus come into the world through a poor family in an unclean place.

Why?   It was for your sake.   For your sake He became poor, that through Him you might become rich – with a wealth beyond material riches. The kind of wealth that can never be taken from you, that moth and rust cannot destroy, that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you (1 Peter 1:4).

Jesus’ mission didn’t begin only in his 30th year. No, the road to Calvary began in Bethlehem, in the barn, where the Holy One came into the world in the midst of uncleanness…    What a picture of the incarnation that is.

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. – 2 Corinthians 8:9

 

Advent Meditations: 8 – Jesus Was a Refugee

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behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. – Matthew 2:13-15

I remember the first time I heard the words: I was 19 years old and worked with refugees in Hungary. We had organized a retreat, in which we took some of the refugees who attended the Bible studies we held at different refugee camps around the country to a “retreat center” in the Buda hills – if you could legitimately call that place a retreat center. It was pretty rough – but at least a step up from conditions at the refugee camps, which were former Russian army bases and workers camps which had been converted into shelters for thousands of refugees from Asia, Africa and the Balkan Peninsula.

A pastor from Oregon who had a heart for refugee ministry had come out for the weekend-long event. That first evening, as we sat down for Bible study, he began with these words: “Jesus was a refugee too.”

Jesus was a refugee too.

I had always known the story found in Matthew’s Gospel, of how, after Jesus was born, Herod the Great had ordered that all baby boys in Bethlehem under 2 years old be put to death, so that the one who had reportedly been born King of the Jews would not threaten his power. Having been tipped off to Herod’s plans, Joseph took his wife Mary and the young Jesus and fled by night to Egypt… where they stayed until Herod died.

No one is quite sure how long Jesus stayed in Egypt, but tradition says it was somewhere between 4-8 years. Jesus spent his early childhood, as a refugee, fleeing a murderous regime…

In fact, part of the mentality that the Jewish people were instructed to have in the Old Testament, was that they had once been “sojourners” (what we would call “refugees” or “migrants”) and therefore they should show love, mercy and kindness to foreigners (refugees and migrants) in their land.

Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. – Deuteronomy 10:19

King David was also at one point a refugee. In 1 Samuel 27 David was being targeted for assassination by a murderous King Saul. Ironically, the Philistines treated David better than the people of Israel did.

But here’s the point: part of the Christmas story is that when God became a man, he could have chosen to be born in comfort and to live a life of ease, but he didn’t. He chose to be born in a barn, to a teenage girl and a construction worker. He chose to become a refugee – to live in exile, despised and held in suspicion, treated as outsiders by those in the country they took refugee in.

Why?  So that he could relate to the poor.  So that he could even relate to the refugees.

When that pastor at our refugee retreat opened with those words: “Jesus was a refugee too,” suddenly he had everyone’s attention – and everyone wanted to know about this God, this Savior, who would become just like THEM. Who understood them, who could empathized with them, and who loved THEM.

Here’s the message of Christmas:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. – 2 Corinthians 8:9

Loving the sojourner in your land: a great (and biblical!) way to celebrate Christmas this year.

 

Advent Meditations: 7 – Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

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When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. – Matthew 2:10-11

The wise men, the Magi from the east, came to visit the newborn King of the Jews, because they saw his star in the sky and came “to worship him” (Matthew 2:2).

They brought him 3 gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. We all know what gold is, but what are frankincense and myrrh, and what was their significance as gifts for a newborn king?

Both frankincense and myrrh are resins made from dried tree sap – certainly lacking the glamour of gold – but both were rare and expensive in their own right, as the trees which they are made from are found in the Horn of Africa and the coast of the Arabian Peninsula.

Frankincense was an aromatic incense that was burned by the priests in the temple, and is still used in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox mass.

Myrrh was used as an ointment for treating wounds and one of its main uses was in the burial process – it was a kind of ancient embalming fluid. 

Kind of a weird thing to give to a baby though, don’t you think?  It’s not something you can pick up at Babies R’ Us!   It’s not something you normally bring to a baby shower!  “Oh, look: onesies and a baby bumper for the crib – and oh, a prepaid funeral and embalming.  A casket…    That is practical – and kind of inappropriate…  Thanks…I guess.”

Somehow these Wise Men understood that the reason this King, Jesus, had come, was to be wounded and to lay down his life – that his life would be a sacrifice.

He was born to die, so that we might live.

And just as they brought their gifts to the newborn king to recognize his rule and authority over them – the same is done today. The ways we express that Jesus is king over us is by bringing gifts similar to those which the Magi brought to Jesus.

They brought him Gold — we also express that Jesus is Lord over us by giving to Him of our financial resources.

They brought him Frankincense. In the Old Testament temple, frankincense was a symbol of the prayers and worship offered up to God, which rise up to the Lord and are a sweet-smelling aroma to Him. Another way we recognize the Lordship of Jesus is by praying and singing songs of praise.

And Myrrh: the symbol of death.  We recognize and declare Jesus to be King over us as we take communion and acknowledge what He did for us on the Cross, by dying in our place for our sins.

Be a wise man – or woman – and honor Jesus as your king by giving these gifts yourself this Advent season, and beyond.