Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Stealing Home"

Message preached December 4, 2011
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  2 Peter 3:8-15a

Order of Worship

 (mp3 audio file)

            In an episode of the television show, "The Simpsons," young Bart hatches a plan to awaken early Christmas morning and sneak a peek at what is under the tree. The fact that his mother has collected all the alarm clocks in the house does not deter him. He simply drinks many glasses of water before going to bed. This, indeed, awakens him in the middle of the night. He then proceeds downstairs to the living room, where he opens and plays with his presents.

            Unfortunately, the remote control fire truck he should have received at a later point that day malfunctions, and before he knows it he has burned down the Christmas tree and everything under it. Why the house is not engulfed in flames in the process is a useless question, for this is but a cartoon with its own kind of logic. Which is a bit like us, for our own logic at times tries to elude the inevitable consequences of our actions.

            Viewing the now melted mess on the floor, Bart comes up with a plan. It is a winter wonderland outside and he figures the snow will cover his sins. So, he carries it all out on the front lawn and shovels it over with the white stuff. When he finally returns inside, convinced that he has succeeded, he is met by the rest of his family wondering why he was outside. They then discover the missing tree and gifts. “What happened, Bart?” they ask. With his brain working overtime, this Simpson kid hatches yet another desperate plan on the fly. “It was a robber,” he proclaims. “He broke into the house and stole our Christmas. I saw him.” The rest of the program reveals how this lie keeps growing and growing.
                           ["Miracle on Evergreen Terrace," originally aired 12/21/1997]

            How often, at this time of year, do we complain that Christmas has become too commercialized? It just isn’t what it used to be, we say. It’s been swallowed up in a mega-holiday, which we might call “Hallo-giving-Kwanz-ukah-mas.” ... “Put “Christ” back into Christmas,” becomes our mantra. We even go so far as getting upset when someone abbreviates the name of this “holy” day to “X-mas.” It’s like some robber broke into our home and stole Christmas from us.

            Of course, we had no role to play in the process, did we? By now we know the reason the Christmas promotions go up earlier and earlier is because customers demand them earlier and earlier. At least that was the case when the economy was better. Now it’s because it needs to be stimulated by our spending, or so the reasoning goes. There is a lot of truth to the fact that we help employ our neighbors through our spending at this time of year. My oldest son, for one, got a seasonal job, so if you shop at ____________, you give him some needed income. I imagine most every salesperson we meet along the way this month might have a similar story as we try to find a path through this “supply and demand” world. This is a long way of saying that, if the truth be told, the stealing of Christmas is an inside job.

            By the way, when we complain about the “X” in the abbreviation, “X-mas,” we forget something. The early church used the symbol of the fish to identify themselves, with the Greek letters in the word fish - “IΧΘUS” (“ichthus”) being an acronym for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” The letter “chi” in Greek, the common language of the Mediterranean area of that time, looks like an “X.” In the fish symbol, it stood for “Xristos” (“Christos”), or “Christ.” Thus, the abbreviation, “X-mas,” is not out-of-line. Perhaps we are the ones who take the “Christ” out of the “X.”

            There’s something else we fail to remember about Christmas. You might say that Christians “stole” this holiday from the pagans. Our “traditional” Christmas has some links to other religions which sought to alleviate some of the dread of a cold and dreary time of year by adding some color. Christians simply started associating with that “color” by bringing in a celebration of how God “colored” the world with his Son. They snuck into the culture with the gospel and appropriated (or, if you will, “stole”) some of the symbols already there, and gave them new meaning.

            I hate to break your bubble if you didn’t know this, but Jesus probably was not born on December 25th. In the first place, there was no “December” back then. They operated on a different calendar. Furthermore, we simply do not know the day on which he was born. It was many years later that the established church chose this particular date to celebrate his birth. Our Greek Orthodox friends, by the way, hold to a different day.

            Christmas has become wrapped in symbols linked to people who live in the upper northern hemisphere of this globe. Our carols sing of the “cold of winter” (see vs. 1 of Lo, how a rose e’er blooming," #211), which must seem a tad interesting to our friends on the other side of the world for whom December 25th is a summer date. What does it mean for them to dream of a “white Christmas?”... My Australian Anglican priest friend (who, by the way, has moved to New Zealand), has shared how they celebrate Christmas outside with steaks on the “barby.” ... We probably should recall that while Israel is in the northern hemisphere of the globe, its climate is comparable to southern California or Florida. Snow is not unheard of in Bethlehem, but is highly unusual.

            With all this in mind, who really stole Christmas? I began this message with an illustration from an unusual source. I mean, really, “The Simpsons?” What better example is there of the banality of television? Like the parade of primetime adult cartoons that have followed its lead, that show makes a mockery of everything. Why pay attention to Bart or Homer or any of the other ludicrous characters in it? Perhaps because, according to The Christian Century,  “The Simpsons” (now in its 23rd season) might be "TV’s most religious family." Why? Unlike other programs, God is part of the show. Homer and his family do go to church. The pastor there is a stereotypical windbag, but at least he is there. Evangelical next-door-neighbor Ned Flanders may be the object of much humor, but he also is a constant presence. The characters, though wacky, operate “in a moral universe in which evil often - if not always - is punished with consequences.” (see also Religion in The Simpsons)

            Bart, for instance was able to fool everyone that a robber stole their Christmas tree and all the presents under it. Along the way something good happened, as news of this robbery brought out the best in people, and neighbors far and wide replaced the Christmas that was stolen from the Simpson house. Of course, the snow eventually melted and the truth came out. That’s how it is, isn’t it? - unlike in other programs where consequences don’t necessarily follow.

            Now, I’m not making a case for or against “The Simpsons.” I’m merely showing how we can “steal” our way (if you will) into something that, on the surface, doesn’t seem all that connected to Christ. To be honest, Homer Simpson is probably so popular in our culture because he looks very familiar. Many of us recognize ourselves in him, and Bart, and Marge, and Lisa, and all the rest. There’s a connection.

            Christmas is really about how God has connected with us. If you will, he “stole” his way into this world through Jesus, who became someone with whom we could identify. That’s what that big word “incarnation” means - “in flesh and blood” ... “one like us.” He looks familiar. We all entered the world pretty much the same way. No, we weren’t all “laid in a manger” in a barn soon after we were born, “wrapped in swaddling cloths.” But, we were born of a woman. We grew up in a home. Maybe not a perfect home, but we had a place. Remember, Jesus lived with an adopted father. Joseph, scripture says, wasn’t his biological Dad. And at some point along the line, though we don’t know when or why, Joseph exited the picture. Sound familiar? Not every family is perfect. In these ways, and more, God in Christ has “stolen” his way into our hearts.

            But this whole “thief” image doesn’t stop there. This world is, as yet, incomplete. God is not finished. There is more to come. Traditionally, Advent is a time for preparing your heart for the coming of the Lord. But it’s a multi-dimensional type of preparation, for while we get ready to celebrate how God “stole” his way into this world as an infant long ago, we also prepare the way for Christ to enter our hearts and lives today. Furthermore, Advent points beyond the present time to how God, ever the “thief” will “steal” his way into this world to finish what is yet undone.

            The day of the Lord will come like a thief,” it says in 2 Peter (3:10),the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.” In other words, the snow won’t always hide everything. God will make things right. When? Now there is the million dollar question.

"God?" a man once prayed.
"Yes?" came the reply.
"God, can I ask a question?"
"Go right ahead."
"God, what is a million years to you?"
"Only a second."
"God, what is a million dollars worth to you?"
"I count it as a penny."
"God, can I have a penny?"
"Sure!! ... just a second."

            "With the Lord one day is like a thousand years," it says in 2 Peter, "and a thousand years are like one day." Things will happen in God’s own time. Furthermore, "the day of the Lord will come like a thief," unexpected, without warning (see these other texts). Things will happen in God’s own way. "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven," God’s people have prayed down through the centuries, wondering how and when. It all boils down to faith .

            Okay, Christmas is now 493 hours away - that is, according to our measuring of time. Instead of asking who stole Christmas (because deep down we know it was an inside job); or instead of crying out that everybody else should put “Christ back in Christmas” (because we know that if “X” marks the spot anywhere, it needs to begin right here); let’s prepare the way to receive the Lord. Brush off the snow with which we might be trying to hide our sins. Turn from whatever wrong path we may be meandering onto. Regain the sense of balance that only God can provide. Trust in the promise. And let the love of Christ steal its way into your home.

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see 1 & Peter, Jude.

©2011, revised from 2002 Peter L. Haynes

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