When I was a little boy, Papa and Mama had a way of teaching me things when I didn’t even know that school was in session. One of those lessons concerned Christmas and the Hewitt boys. The Hewitt boys were like stair-steps, about a year apart in age, about 6, 7, and 8 years old. They were being reared by their overworked mother who had at least two jobs. The boys were often unsupervised and definitely undisciplined. Papa insisted that we transport the boys to church on Sunday mornings. Then on the Sunday after Christmas, they were always invited to our house for Sunday lunch. My parents had presents prepared for them, but they also played with my Christmas presents, and usually broke one or two of them. The Hewitt boys were destructive. For the life of me, I couldn’t see why my parents let those young savages invade our peaceful home. Now I know that there were several reasons. Part of their purpose was to teach me the real meaning of Christmas.
You know the primary problem we Christians face this month. It is so easy to get caught up in a month-long frenzy of buying, rushing, decorating, and partying. How else do you explain the reports of riots in Connecticut and California as people fight to claim one of Sony’s latest video game players, PlayStation 3?
Each day the Commercial Appeal is loaded with colorful advertisements of all the latest toys, clothing styles, sports items, and technical gadgets. Children and adults get caught up in this craving for things, and we want them now!
A little boy named Ryan was standing beside his father in the checkout line at a department store. Ryan asked if he could have a toy that was on display. His father said, “Christmas is a month away. You’ll have to ask Santa.” Ryan replied, “I know a quicker way. I’ll ask Grandma.” Ryan has already bought into the instant gratification of our culture.
In preparation for the birthday of Him who had no place to lay his head, we are urged to buy a $10,000 necklace for the wife or a $75,000 automobile.
And when the Christmas season ends, how do we usually feel? Often we have the post-Christmas blues and are utterly worn out. We take down the tree, send the decorations back to the attic, and contemplate those bills that we must face in January. In moments of special introspection, we might ask, “Is this the kind of celebration that pleases and glorifies the Lord Jesus?”
There is one character in the original Christmas event with whom we can easily identify – the Bethlehem innkeeper. His inn is mentioned in the Christmas story but we are not told the proprietor’s name. There is just this one phrase in
It was not surprising that there was no room in the Bethlehem inn for the holy family. Because of this Roman census or registration, everybody had to return to his hometown and be counted. Bethlehem’s great claim to fame was that it was the home of King David. So, everybody who claimed King David as an ancestor (and there were thousands) returned to Bethlehem. This was the Bethlehem’s innkeeper’s big opportunity to make some serious money.
Usually in Christmas plays, the Bethlehem innkeeper is cast as something of a villain. We imagine some hard-hearted Scrooge so intent on money-making that he forgets all about hospitality.
I heard about a Jewish lady named Mrs. Rosenberg who some years ago tried to get a room at a very exclusive hotel on Cape Cod. This particular hotel was run by some haughty Protestants from Boston, and it excluded Jews. So, when Mrs. Rosenberg gave her name to the desk clerk, he said, “Sorry, we’re all booked up.” “But,” she said, “You have a vacancy sign out front.” The clerk stammered a bit and finally confessed, “Sorry, but we don’t cater to Jewish persons.” Mrs. Rosenberg stiffened noticeably and then said, “It may surprise you to know that I have converted to Christianity.” “Is that so?” responded the clerk. “Let me give you a bit of a test. Where was Jesus born?” “In a stable in Bethlehem,” she replied. “Who were his parents?” “Mary and Joseph,” she answered. “Why was he born in a stable?” he asked. Rather loudly Mrs. Rosenberg replied, “Because a jerk like you wouldn’t give a Jewish lady a room for the night.”
It is doubtful that the Bethlehem innkeeper was an excluder. There is no reason to believe that he was a bad fellow at all. He was just very busy, taking care of his customers, making change in various currencies, and keeping peace among the guests. Privacy was minimal and I’m sure there were some guests who snored. The tragedy is that when the most important birth in human history took place in his backyard, he missed it entirely. Not because he was bad; he was just too busy.
The single biggest enemy of Christmas is not the ACLU. It’s the cultural kidnapping of Christmas. The danger is that in the midst of all the busyness, buying, and partying, we will miss the real meaning of Christmas. Just like the Bethlehem innkeeper.
Now, my wife warned me not to fuss at you today. I have a cartoon somewhere that shows a woman greeting her pastor after a worship service. She says, “Nice deploring this morning, pastor. Nice deploring.” Well, I want to do something more positive than deploring. So, I will offer six specific suggestions; these are listed in your bulletin. Each one has Scriptural backing.
FIRST, REPLACE SUPERFLUOUS GIFTS WITH MISSIONAL GIFTS.
Isn’t it a shame that we buy lots of gifts that are not needed and often are never used? Think of the time we spend trying to think up gifts for people who don’t need anything. I wonder how many Christmas neckties are relegated to the back of closets, never to see the light of day. Just think of the boxes of candy, country ham, peanuts, and jellies that are sent to people who need more calories about as much as Memphis needs more crime.
Instead of an unneeded gift, why not offer a missional gift in honor of some person or family? Our missions department has produced this very helpful brochure entitled “Light Up the World.” You can make a gift for as little as $10 that will touch people in China or the Middle East or Zambia or India or Binghampton. A notice will be sent to a particular person or family informing them that you have made a gift in their honor. Copies of this brochure are outside the worship area.
You can do something similar through the Church Health Center.
One of the essential guidelines in the early church was “to remember the poor.” (
Suggestion # 2 is
SAY “NO” TO SOME GOOD THINGS SO YOU CAN SAY “YES” TO THE BEST.
Without much difficulty, you could find a party or holiday event every night of December. But what would that accomplish other than to leave you exhausted? The Bible urges us “not to conform any longer to the pattern of this world.” (
Suggestion # 3 is
REACH BEYOND FAMILY TO SOMEONE WHO NEEDS YOU
Jesus said that if we help someone who is near the bottom of the world’s pecking order, that is the same as doing a kindness for him. If you don’t already know of a person or family with special needs this Christmas, our missions department or the Salvation Army or MIFA can help you. Yes, we must be careful in helping disadvantaged persons lest we come across in a paternalistic fashion. Helping someone anonymously can be wonderful. But there is also something positive about crossing socio-economic and cultural boundaries to express the love of Christ person to person. In Jesus’ wonderful story of the Good Samaritan, the helper did not send money to the hotel with instructions to take care of the wounded man. He put him on his donkey and escorted him to the hotel. That personal touch is important. Furthermore, our children need to be sensitized to the poverty in our city.
Many wonderful gifts are not purchased with money. These are gifts of time and effort on behalf of others. Notice in your bulletin today opportunities for you to give precious time. These opportunities reach from New Orleans to Binghampton.
Here is suggestion # 4:
SEE THE MOVIE “THE NATIVITY STORY.”
This movie opened this weekend across America. This is the first time in fifty years that a major Hollywood studio has bankrolled a biblical epic. It has drawn rave reviews for being a masterful portrayal of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. The production chief for New Line Cinema said, “When I first read the script, I cried, and I’m not a Christian.” This movie is true to the Scriptures and is a wonderful love story between Mary and Joseph. Mary is played by Keisha Castle-Hughes, a 16-year-old who was nominated for an Oscar two years ago.
Attending this movie would be a wonderful family or Sunday School or Grace Group activity.
Suggestion # 5 is a question:
AREN’T THREE PRESENTS ENOUGH FOR A FAMILY MEMBER?
One of the young families in our church has three children, all under the age of 12. The parents have explained to the children that Jesus received three gifts on his birthday – gold, incense, and myrrh. If three gifts were enough for the Savior, three should be enough for us. These children have been trained to anticipate just three gifts on Christmas morning.
If we want to prevent Christmas from becoming a materialistic binge with a year-long financial hangover, limits must be set now. Uncontrolled gift-buying may be good for the economy, but it neither honors the Savior nor is good for us or our children.
Here is the sixth and final suggestion:
ON CHRISTMAS MORNING READ THE CHRISTMAS STORY (
You can do this either before or after the opening of gifts, depending on the age and patience of the family members. We must not forget the reason for the season.
Remember the purpose of all these suggestions. We should model a positive Christmas celebration for our culture. We should transform Christmas from a chaotic, exhausting, materialistic binge into a deeply meaningful, peaceful, joyful celebration of Jesus’ birth.
Let me conclude with a story about a boy who really understood what Christmas is all about. Jimmy was in the 8th grade, but because of his mental limitations as a Special Education child, he couldn’t really do all of the 8th grade work. The teacher in that class planned a Christmas play. Jimmy wanted to be in it very much. The teacher doubted that he would be able to memorize his lines, but all the students wanted to include Jimmy. So, he was assigned the role of the Bethlehem innkeeper, primarily because that character had only two words to say: “No room.” Then after Mary begged for special consideration, he was supposed to say those same words again, “No room.”
Eventually the day of the performance came. Lots of family and friends were in the audience. Mary and Joseph approached the inn and knocked on the door. Jimmy opened the door and said flawlessly, “No room.” Then Mary said, “But I’m very tired and I’m going to have a baby real soon. If I don’t find a safe place for my baby to be born, I’m going to cry.”
Jimmy paused for a moment, and then said, “I know what I’m supposed to say . . . but you can have my room.”
Jimmy was willing to violate a script in order to follow the higher impulse of love. We Christians must be willing to violate the cultural script about Christmas if we want to truly glorify the Savior.
Bill Bouknight is Senior Pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, TN.