by Joe Leavell
Have you ever had your coworkers throw you a birthday party at your job? Because they work with you, you know that, whether they care or not, they are expected to participate. Of course, everyone knows what to expect because it’s a work party. People all stop what they are doing when a mandatory sheet cake is brought forward. They all gather around and sing a half-hearted “Happy Birthday” slightly off key, after which there is the opening of a card that was passed around to sign. Peopl make the most of the time away from their duties by chatting and eating cake, but after a few minutes of awkwardness, the boss shuffles everyone back to work. Don’t those parties make you feel so special?
I sometimes wonder if Christmas is sometimes like a glorified work birthday party. We know the routine. While there are variations from year to year, the core of what we do is always the same every time. Many of us put up Christmas lights and have Christmas trees. We buy and wrap presents, overextend our budgets, and prepare fancy dinners. We send out Christmas cards, some make Christmas cookies, and a few brave souls go caroling. We go to church this week, and maybe even go to a Christmas Eve service. We hear the Christmas story read from the same Bible passage every year. We hear a pastor tell us there was no room at the inn. We hear about the shepherds, the angels, the swaddling clothes, the silent night. We try to muster up the spirit of Christmas and have a cheerful and giving heart. Then, on December 26th, the 24 hour Christmas radio station goes back to pop music, and we shuffle back to work until next year.
Of course there are those people who absolutely *LOVE*the Christmas season! They love the traditions, the shopping, the lights, the bell ringing at the stores, the trees, the presents, the eggnog, the music, the family reunion, and the decorations. These are the people who begin singing “I wanna Hippopotamus for Christmas!” in August, and you can’t shut them up no matter how hard you try.
Whether or not you are a nut who loves to jingle all year round or are a humbug who just trudges through the holidays, have you ever stopped to consider God’s perspective on our celebration of Jesus’ birth? Do you think He likes it, or does God ever feel like our celebration of the Savior’s birth is kind of like a mandatory office party? Everyone stops for a few days because they get to be off work. They pay their obligatory homage of being more charitable. They buy loved ones presents, attend church, and then maybe after enjoying a day or two relaxing from the daily grind, they get back to work with a few extra pounds and a new sweater.
While not specific of Christmas itself, the Bible does clue us in on a group of people (Israel) who look at celebrating religious feasts and giving God honor as an obligation. Rather than celebrating God, they celebrated the ceremony. They believed that through doing their religious duty, they were made right with God. They did not have hearts that loved God, and they had no desire to have a relationship with Him. Yet, they gave Him the obligatory religious dues that they thought they had to do because it was expected tradition. God makes his view of obligatory celebrations crystal clear. He tells these party goers, “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. (Amos 5:21, 23 ESV).” In Isaiah 1:14, God echoes the sentiment again, “Your new moons (holidays) and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.”
That is strong language, especially for people who are supposedly doing something in your honor. In Isaiah 29:13, God tells us why He’s sickened by these celebrations. He says, “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.” Is this how God feels when we celebrate Christmas? Does He “hate” and “despise” our lights, our trees, our Christmas carols, and our eggnog? Are they a “burden” and is He “weary of bearing them?”
The question from God’s perspective is not whether He wants twinkle icicle or multi colored lights on the house. God’s issue with Israel’s feasting is the same issue now: our hearts. Do our hearts truly reflect a desire to celebrate the One we love who was born to die on a cross so that we might have life? When Christmas does not reflect a life that has been celebrating and living out the Gospel through the entire year, our singing “Joy to the World” does nothing to honor Christ. When we celebrate Christ’s birth simply as an obligatory tradition with our lips and not from our hearts, God finds our celebrations less appealing than a group of virtual strangers who are forced to sing “Happy Birthday” at the office.
There is nothing wrong with celebrating our traditions of lights, singing, and gift giving. Enjoy your eggnog. But if you desire to celebrate, consider your heart and what means the most to God. He tells Israel in Isaiah 1:16-18 what He desires more than any holiday celebration. He ends His list with the promise of redemption that Christ would accomplish in His coming to earth:
Make yourselves clean;
Remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
Cease to do evil,
Learn to do good;
Bring justice to the fatherless,
Plead the widow’s cause.”
‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord: ‘though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.