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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Christmas Eve 12/24/2013

It came without ribbons, it came without tags; It came without packages, boxes or bags.

Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store; Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.

You perhaps recognize that from How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss, another classic story and film of the season.  Dr. Seuss wrote that back in 1957, over 50 years ago in response to what he saw as the creeping commercialism of Christmas at that time.  It was his way of trying to get at the true meaning of Christmas and there’s still lots of discussion about the true meaning every year as commercialism continues its creep and Christmas has little or no religious meaning for many people. 

Dr. Seuss wasn’t the first or the last one to address the issue of the true meaning.  The blurb on the back of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, written in 1843, and the teasers for the various movie versions call it the story of a miser who learns the true meaning of Christmas.   Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life, which are both pretty good movies, make the same claim about offering the true meaning of Christmas and there are other stories and movies, some pretty good, many really bad and sappy, that also make that claim.          

Of course what’s interesting about most of these movies and stories is that there is either no mention or barely a mention of Jesus in any of them.  The true meaning of Christmas that they claim to give isn’t about the birth of Jesus nor is the true meaning the same in all of them.  In some cases the true meaning doesn’t seem to be much more than choosing the perfect gift but in many it’s about charity and the need for charitable giving, care for the poor, generosity and hospitality; in some it’s about the need for faith and imagination and believing in the possibilities; in many it’s about the importance of family as well as forgiveness, redemption and second chances. In most it’s actually some combination of all of these things. 

Again though, no mention of Jesus or the story of the birth of a savior who is Christ the Lord.  One of the only Christmas movies to bring the birth of Jesus front and center is A Charlie Brown Christmas in which Linus reads the King James Version of Luke Chapter 2 in the midst of everybody else’s excitement about lights and decorations and presents, excitement that just depresses poor old Charlie Brown.  Even that was somewhat controversial though as network executives wanted the scene of LInus reading the Bible cut because they didn’t think viewers would want to sit through it but Charles Schulz, concerned about the true meaning, was adamant about leaving it in. “If we don’t tell the true meaning of Christmas, who will?” he said.

All of this can and has prompted self-righteous preachers, including me, to denigrate these movies and stories that claim to give us the true meaning of Christmas with no mention of Jesus.  It’s true, there is only one story of Christmas and that’s the one in the Bible, the one that Linus read in Charlie Brown and that I read tonight.  In our minds we do blend in some of Matthew’s version too, especially the Wise Men, but the story in the Bible, especially tonight’s Gospel from Luke, is the Christmas story, “To you is born this day in the city of David, a savior who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

But think about what Luke does here.  He tells a story; that’s important, but maybe even more, he creates symbols, symbols like angels and shepherds, light shining in the darkness, a poor, young couple, a manger, a baby wrapped in strips of cloth, the glory of the Lord.  Luke doesn’t explain much; he tells the story, he offers the symbols and then he leaves it there.  He leaves it not for our critical analysis, but to allow the symbols to work on that other part of our brain or, in the language of Luke, to ponder them in our heart.

Tonight, maybe more than at any other time, the symbols do work on us.  Whether it’s from the words or the music or just the atmosphere, the symbols create a vision of truth.  It’s truth that isn’t necessarily rational, historic truth about what happened that night. It’s not truth that requires explanation because it touches each of us in a much deeper way, although not necessarily the same way, as the symbols continue to work on us.

Thinking positively then about all those stories and movies that claim to offer the true meaning of Christmas without mentioning Jesus, you could say that they are the product of the symbols from Luke working on those who wrote or produced the stories and movies.  Except for Charlie Brown, they do go beyond the Bible and the birth of Jesus, but... charitable giving and generosity, faith and believing in the possibilities, hospitality, family and forgiveness, redemption and second chances are all things that can be drawn from the symbols of Luke’s story and from the teaching of Jesus.

After all, while the true meaning of Christmas isn’t about ribbons and tags, packages, boxes and bags, it also isn’t just about getting lost in nostalgia and sentiment as we sing the carols and hear the story and gaze at the baby in the manger, it isn’t just a birthday party for the baby Jesus.  It does have to do with letting the symbols do their work and then pondering what they mean as we live as followers of the baby born that night. 

The best of the stories and movies that claim to give us the true meaning of Christmas do help us ponder and in some cases give us very memorable characters who help to convey meaning and who become part of Christmas, they do have their place.  But still, it all starts with the story, the timeless story that we gather around tonight, the story of the love of God revealed in Jesus, the story of this night when earth was touched by heaven and the divine became human, thus forever changing the relationship between God and humanity.  The other stories do have something to say about the true meaning of Christmas, but you can’t have a real Christmas without the story, the story of good news of great joy for all people.  To you is born this day, a savior, who is Christ the Lord.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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