Advent has begun, inviting us to wait and watch for the coming of Jesus, the Christ. We enter again into the agony of hearts aching under the weight of this world’s deep longings—and Hope to be fully satisfied.
We carefully track with the Peace of the Prince who comes into our brokenness and battles bearing the promise of His shalom—wholeness, reconciliation and healing.
We allow our hearts to rise for the real Joy that suffuses ordinary moments with heaven’s laughter and redeems our midnight tears for another morning.
We stand again at the manger, wide-eyed at the mystery of the Babe– Immanuel, “God with us”—and sense again the wonder that we are deeply, passionately, inexplicably delighted in by forever Love.
It’s all gospel. Good news. The presents and the trees and the lights and the bows and the carols and the cards and the stockings and the cookies for the mailman and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life” and a child’s bright eyes on Santa’s lap and worship services and family moments.
The whole Advent season leading to Christmas is all gospel, tinged with wonder.
For the past few years, the beginning of the Advent season has also marked the beginning of the battle cry from Christian culture warriors.
You know the drill. Somebody gets all in a lather over store clerks wishing people “happy holidays” or as in Kentucky, calling a Christmas tree a “holiday tree.” Buttons are worn and bumper stickers are placed and “sign this and pass it on if you believe in Christmas” petitions are circulated on the internet.
And now, Focus on the Family has actually developed a web site called Stand for Christmas. The basic idea is that costumers can log on and rank various businesses as “Christmas-friendly”, Christmas-negligent” or “Christmas-offensive”. There’s a constantly updated percentage for each category listed for dozens of businesses, and as soon as someone sends their comments, an e-mail is automatically generated to the business itself.
Part of the web site states:
“’Tis the season to expose folly! In our country which was founded with the ideal of providing religious liberty, we can encourage genuine mutual respect amid diversity without denying the prominent place Christmas holds both here and worldwide. Our commonsense appeal is not to encourage retailers to be exclusive but to be more inclusive by notably featuring the word Christmas….StandForChristmas.com puts you in the driver’s seat! And I believe retailers will take note of how consumers are rating their Christmas shopping experiences. Christmas is not only a memorable family time, it is the season in which we celebrate God’s greatest gift to man. Christ is the centerpiece of our holiday season. Help us encourage the many retailers who are doing it well and urge those who censor the word “Christmas” to change their approach!”
OK. But…really? Is this the primary thing that those of us who have received the gospel gift want to broadcast during this season?
Zach Nielson sums up some of my thoughts:
Why are we expecting non-believers to ascribe to something that means nothing to them? Does this help us promote the true meaning of Christmas? Why would we expect any different? I don’t get it.
Whether unbelievers use the words Happy Holidays or Christmas is of little consequence as to their understanding of the Gospel. In my view, this kind of stuff only hurts our mission to communicate the truth of the Gospel. If you think people using the word Christmas somehow makes our materialistic holiday extravaganza more pure you are probably not paying attention very well. Boycotting secular businesses that do not exhibit the kind of behavior that we think they should is the last thing that an unbelieving world needs to see.
The main question this website asks is, “How Christmas Friendly Are Retailers?” What does retail have to do with the essence of Christmas anyway? Obviously, the true meaning of Christmas is very important to us and we want to teach our kids the meaning of Christmas, but that is not going to be found in any retail store, no matter how “Christmas friendly” they are.
Let’s say that the CEO of Best Buy somehow stumbles upon this website and he happens to be a hard-core Christian skeptic. Do you think that this kind of a website is a helpful Christian witness for him? I doubt it. It serves the opposite goal. If we want people to cherish Christmas the path to seeing that accomplished is not paved with boycotts and angry comment sections on a public website.
Do we expect our unbelieving Muslim friends to acknowledge Christmas? Do we expect our unbelieving Hindu friends to acknowledge Christmas? Do we have unbelieving friends? Isn’t this just a subtle (or not so subtle) form of legalism?
For a Baptist, there are questions of religious liberty and freedom of conscience at play here. Yes, we want all people to recognize the central reality of Jesus to our year-end celebrations. But we can’t mandate that or force it on a secular culture. That’s not the way a gift of grace works. That’s not the way witness or mission works, for we are called to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15)
Again, I ask: is this really what we want to be known for at Christmas? Just like the Disney boycotts and the values voter drives, suddenly the conversation becomes about what we are against, rather than what we are for.
What if we win a few skirmishes here and force a college student or a single mom working a second job at minimum wage to say, ”Merry Christmas”? What if we make people say the right words because it’s what we want to hear to make us feel better about our culture—but they miss encountering His promise of hope, peace, joy and love. They may mouth the words of our desired Christmas story—but their hearts may miss the gospel altogether.
This marks the Advent season with a selfish silliness that obscures the wonder of the gospel that is the whole point of Christmas in the first place.
Our community’s experience of Christmas wonder or Christmas silliness doesn’t rest with people who do not claim him, but with those who are His. So this Advent, be stunned at Immanuel again—whisper, giggle, weep, sigh and sing. And make sure some far-from-God people are right next to you when the wonder comes near.