"HOW TO CELEBRATE"
First Sunday after Christmas
December 30, 2018
Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church
Whatever you do, in word and deed, do everything in the name of Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.
Colossians 3:17 (ESV)
Christmas celebrations vary between different families, cultures, and religious traditions. Sometimes they can vary within the same family or even with the same person. I can think of two Christmases in my past that were strangely different than any others. In December of 1972 my father lay in a hospital bed, dying. On top of that, we were in the process of moving to another home. There was no Christmas tree for us that year, no decorations, no exchanging of gifts. A number of years later, on Christmas Day in 1986, Marie's father was ill at home, observing not only his last Christmas but his last full day on this earth. I'm not telling you all of this to "tug at your heartstrings" or to generate sympathy; I'm simply trying to make the point that Christmas is still Christmas regardless of the circumstances that may surround it. God sent His incarnate Son into the world. That is a fact that no other fact or collection of facts can change. In 1972 and in 1986 we still celebrated Christmas. We just had to find different ways to do it.
And what is it, really, that we are celebrating during this special season? Certainly not a Christmas tree, holiday decorations, or material gifts. What we are really celebrating (or at least what we should be celebrating) are the gifts that we cannot make or buy--the gifts that no difficulties or tragedies can ever take away from us. I'm speaking of gifts like forgiveness, love, peace, joy, thankfulness--all given to us freely in the God who became Man for us to overcome all of the unpleasant things that threaten to mar not only our celebration of Christmas but our entire lives. He did this by redeeming us from the cause of all of those unpleasant things, which is our sin. How do we even begin to celebrate something as wonderful as all of this? In this morning's Epistle Saint Paul addresses this vey subject. He speaks of it not in terms of specific activities but rather in terms of the motivation and the attitude that should pervade and direct "whatever [we] do, in word and deed." In particular, the apostle directs and encourages us to "do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him."
All of our celebration and, in fact, all that we say and do, is to be "in the name of the Lord Jesus." That doesn't simply mean that every activity that we engage in must be preceded by the Trinitarian Invocation with the sign of the cross and must end with the words "in the name of Jesus." "The name of the Lord Jesus" is a lot more than that. It is, first and foremost, a realization that the incarnate Christ came into this world to permeate every part of our lives. There is some evidence that one of the issues that Paul was addressing in his letter to the Colossians was the Gnostic heresy, which still affects some Christians today. The Gnostics taught that everything "spiritual" is good and everything bodily or material is evil. Therefore, they taught, we should focus on the "spiritual" and ignore the material. The problem with this heresy is that it contradicts the incarnation, in which God chose to become material Himself and thereby sanctified the material. It's not wrong to enjoy material things, as long as we do it "in the name of the Lord Jesus," that is, asking His help, using His authority, and obeying His will in all that we do.
There is power in the name of Jesus. Using someone's name when we speak or act attaches to those words and actions all of the authority of that name. For example, we are baptized "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19). When I pronounce the Absolution, I do so "in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ" (Lutheran Service Book, page 185). In the same way, our enjoyment of the festivities of this season are "in the name of the Lord Jesus." Jesus has given us joy in His incarnation, and we celebrate that joy in His name and by His authority. If He had not become One of us to reconcile us to God, what we have to be joyful about? It's okay to have fun--and it's in Jesus' name and by His authority (the authority of His death and resurrection) that we can have fun. Far from being the "serious" and "religious" One who ruins our celebration of Christmas, He is the One who gives us a reason to celebrate with joy.
We celebrate in the right way when, in our celebration, we are "giving thanks to God the Father through Him." There is a difference between gratitude and thanksgiving. Gratitude is an obligation, as when we say that we "owe someone a debt of gratitude." Thanksgiving, on the other hand, is a privilege. It is an attitude that is born and grows within us because God's Gift of His Son changes us. It changes us from enemies of God into the children of God. It changes us from sinners into saints (although the sinful nature still lurks within us). It changes us from indifferent takers of everything that God gives into faithful stewards who realize that everything belongs to God and is given to us through Christ to enjoy for ourselves and to share with others. God's gifts in the Christ Child aren't like other gifts. We don't lose them for ourselves when we give them away. We don't lose anything when we give the Gospel away. On the contrary, our joy in all that the Savior has done for us grows within us as we see it bring forgiveness, life, and salvation to others.
All of this is "through Him," that is, through Christ. He is the only Mediator between the holy God and sinners like us, and He, through the power of His Spirit, is the only Motivator for everything worthwhile that we do. What that Spirit is telling us in these words that He inspired Paul to write is that everything that we say and do because of Jesus is our real worship. Paul says the same thing in His letter to the Romans: "I implore you by God's mercy," he writes, "to offer your very selves to Him: a living sacrifice, dedicated and fit for His acceptance, the worship offered by mind and heart. Adapt yourselves no longer to the pattern of this present world, but let your minds be remade and your whole nature thus transformed. Then you will be able to discern the will of God, and to know what is good, acceptable, and perfect" (Romans 12:1, 2 NEB). That worship, offered to God in Jesus' name in thanksgiving for His gifts of salvation, no matter how lacking it may be, is accepted by God as perfect for the sake of His perfect Son. And that is something to celebrate!
Thanksgiving for God's Gift in Christ is what controls and characterizes the whole Christian life. We don't try to please God out of fear, hoping to be good enough to gain His favor. We try to please Him because we are thankful that we already have His favor, manifested in the life and ministry of Jesus. And that attitude of thanksgiving permeates every part of our lives. There is no separation between the sacred and the secular in the Christian life. Whatever we do as Christians, no matter how menial or material it may be, is done "in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him." That is true worship--and that is true celebration.
May the true Light which enlightens everyone, which has come into the world, shining brightly in the darkness, be your very life. And may the Word become flesh, Jesus Christ Himself, continue to make known to you His redeeming grace and truth now and always. He who calls you is faithful, and He will do it. Amen.