| "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
May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
Message preached December 23,
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon Luke 1:39-56
Order of Worship
listen to this in mp3 format
Does the title I’ve given this message sound a bit arrogant? To “re-claim”
something implies that it once belonged to us, but has slipped out of our
fingers. We want, now, to possess it again, placing our claim to it on the
table. Christmas belongs to us! We need to put “Christ” back in Christ-mas,
The feeling is understandable. In an earlier age, there was no problem with
unabashedly centering Christmas programs in our public schools upon the
biblical story of Jesus’ birth. Not so now. Blame the change on Baltimore’s
own Madelyn Murray O’Hare, if you will. She, and others, worked to get God
out of the public schools.
However, the story is much more complicated than an angry atheist. It’s a
tale of a changing society. When my children went to middle school, it was
obvious that Cockeysville is a diverse community. A large percentage of the
students there are of Asian descent. Some of them are Christian. Many are
not. Likewise, through school I made some Jewish friendships. Other
religions are part of the mix. Our country, as a whole, is becoming more
Our nation, yes, was founded upon biblical principles, among many other
influences. But we have also been an immigrant land, a place which offered
freedom of religion. We still are, only today the immigrants are not coming
from Europe, as they did in the past. Modern immigrants are bringing their
own faiths with them, and that’s something we just have to get used to as
Christians. Does our faith depend upon us being in the majority? I hope not.
The clash in cultures is keenly felt at this time of year, for many
religious celebrations are focused upon this month: Christmas,
- being some we’re a bit familiar with, if only by name. Sometimes the lines
between them seem to blur. It’s only natural for us to feel like Christmas
is being taken away from us, that we need to fight to reclaim it.
However, friends, we first need to be honest about this holy day. It wasn’t
ours to start with. That’s right. As some Christians are quick to point out,
Christmas has its origins in pagan rituals, all of which revolved around the
winter solstice, which happened last Friday. In the northern hemisphere
of this globe, December 21st is the longest night of the year.
From here on the daylight hours increase. In ancient days, while this was,
calendar-wise, a time for hope (looking ahead to warmer, more fertile days),
it was also a period of fear for, indeed, the people of all races walked in
a great darkness - literally.
Practices arose in every land to push back the darkness, to quell the fear
of the night, to provide hope. Some of those practices are still a part of
this season. For instance, why do you think people put lights on their
houses at this time of year? Is it just to make them pretty? No. The
practice actually goes way back to bonfires and yule logs, a means of
pushing back the dark nights. The same is true of Christmas trees, and the
holly and the ivy. They are symbols of hope amid the bleakness of winter
because they are ever-green. They didn’t start out as Christian symbols.
some Christians say, as did the
puritans in the Massachusetts Bay colony, that because Christmas has
such pagan roots, we ought to have nothing to do with it. Our own Brethren
forebearers, themselves, were critical of excessive celebration, but they
adapted the day in a creative way. You see, they were immigrants, also,
forced to flee Europe in search of religious liberty. The bulk of their
migration took place in the early 1720's. On Christmas
Day in 1723, they gathered in Germantown, outside Philadelphia. Journeying
through the snow down to the Wissahickon creek, they broke through the ice
and held the first Brethren baptism in America. Then they went to the warmth
of someone’s home and celebrated their first Love Feast in the new world.
Talk about a Christmas to remember! How creative!
Instead of criticizing the pagan roots of this holiday, or of fighting over
who it belongs to, like some custody battle in court which only seems to
damage everybody equally, I’d much rather deal with Christmas in the same
creative way as our forebearers in the faith - and I’m not just talking
“Brethren.” You see, the early
Christians lived in societies as pluralistic as our own. You know what? They
thrived! They weren’t out to recapture anything. They simply sought to share
the good news of Jesus Christ and the coming Kingdom of God.
Along the way, they discovered common ground with people of other faiths, or
even those of no faith, whatsoever. In an interesting chapter in the story
as we’ve received it, the apostle Paul creatively adapted a statue in the
city of Athens. In the book of the Acts of the Apostles, it says that “(Paul)
was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols”
(17:16). Sound familiar? Any of you
have a similar experience while Christmas shopping this year - feeling like
you were surrounded by idols?
Well, there in Athens Paul found one object of worship, “an altar with
the inscription, ‘to an unknown God.’ What therefore you
worship as unknown,” he went on to say to the people of that city, “this
I proclaim to you.” (17:23) Paul
adapted something pagan and used it to share the good news of Jesus.
(See the whole story in Acts
In a way, that’s the story of Christmas, a celebration which has many
origins in various other religions. Christians creatively adapted these
celebrations to make them vessels for proclaiming the good news of the
incarnation - how God sent his Son into this world, becoming one of us,
experiencing life as we live it, in all its fragility. Christ was God’s love
in human form. Into our darkness came this light. And this light shined and
continues to shine brighter than any other light, drawing the world to the
One who created us.
No, when I speak of “reclaiming Christmas,” I am not talking as a soldier
out to win back some strategic location which once belonged to us but now is
in enemy hands. Neither am I arguing like a spouse demanding my rightful
share of common property and custody of the children. You know, we
Christians can sometimes come off looking just like these images - to those
who do not know Christ - when we try to “win back” what we think we possess.
Doesn’t our faith tell us, however, that it is all a gift, something that
does not belong to us, exclusively? Our very life belongs to the One who
created us, the very One who gave his Son to the world as a gift, to
set us free from the power of sin and death. When we give gifts to one
another, as followers of the greatest gift ever, Jesus Christ, we are living
out of that gift. That’s especially true when we give freely from the heart,
and not because we expect something in return, or feel like it’s expected of
us. God first gave to us. How can we help but pass that gift along?
I’ve often wondered why Mary, the mother of Jesus, went to visit her cousin
Elizabeth after being visited herself by the angel Gabriel. I’m sure there
were very practical reasons for it, one being the discomfort of pregnancy
without virtue of marriage. It wasn’t all that many years ago that this was
standard procedure for a woman in similar circumstances here. Go visit
distant relatives until the child is born. Such is not the practice anymore.
As I read the gospel, however, I don’t think that’s why Mary went. She also
didn’t go because she was told by the angel to go. Gabriel mentioned that
Elizabeth was herself pregnant, but he didn’t suggest a meeting between the
two women. No, that must have been Mary’s idea. Why? Maybe it was because
she needed to tell somebody, and Elizabeth might have been the only person
she felt could understand, since something had happened to this cousin also.
Would Elizabeth be the only person able to see Mary’s pregnancy as good news
and not bad news?
When they met, Mary couldn’t help but burst into song. Now, I don’t imagine
it was opera, though the words come across a bit formal to us reading it
2000 years later. At the time, however, it probably was less poetry on a
page and more something shared from the heart - just passing the gift along.
And you know what, that’s always been the case. Christians have been pretty
creative down through the years at finding doorways for him to enter in most
every culture. That’s probably because they / we just want to share from the
heart (as Mary did with Elizabeth) something good, to “proclaim with wonder”
God’s greatness, to “magnify the Lord,” to somehow put into words what God
is doing in us - knowing that words are never enough.
This week, I encourage you to reclaim Christmas - not by force, but by welcoming
Christ into wherever you are. If you’re able to gather with family, welcome him
in, and share what needs to be shared - even if “family” is a tense place, or if
“family” is a phone call or a friend. Let him live in your home. If you must be
away from home at this time, as many of us need to be - working or on the road,
welcome him in wherever you are. Share from the heart what needs to be shared.
Let him live there. In so doing we will reclaim Christmas, maybe for the first
©2012 (revised from
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)
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