Good morning, and welcome to the season of Advent! Today marks the official first new day of the Christian Calendar, as we celebrate the first season of the Christian year with a focus on God’s gift in the birth of Jesus Christ. It is a shame in many ways that this special season in the life of the church has been taken over by the Hallmarks and toy stores of the world as a commercialized opportunity to pad the profit margins before the end of the calendar year. Much of what you see and hear around you in this season – from the pictures with Santa in the malls, to the exorbitant costs spent on home decoration and Christmas cards – while trying to encourage a focus on the season, often does little more than distract us from the true gift of God’s love in the incarnate Son of God whose birth is remembered once more.
However, I’m not sure that all of the commotion and promotion of the Christmas season is in and of itself damaging. Instead, I think it is our lack of focus on the gift of God in Jesus Christ because of the commotion that is damaging. But what if we could see deeper into the gross commercialization of the Christmas season and find in it a message of God’s hope – a message that is congruent with the scriptural texts that promise us of the coming reign of the Son of God – a message that points us toward the light of the world that overpowers the darkness around us? What if, instead of ignoring or skipping out on all the materialistic hoopla that accompanies Christmas in our culture, we reclaimed the message of Christmas in the midst of the Christmas profiteering?
That is exactly our goal this Advent Season. To help bring in the new year of the church, in a time when we focus on preparing our lives to welcome once more the birth of Christ, we are going to spend some time digging in to pop culture to find a word of promise – even hidden as it may be – that does not skip out on the hope of the scriptural texts that guide our path to the manger on Christmas Eve.
We start our Advent Worship Series, called Christmas at the Movies, searching for a faithful word in the 21st Century hit, Elf. A number of folks gathered last evening to watch the movie here at the church. In the coming weeks, you too can join in our weekly ‘Dinner and a Movie’ parties that will be held in the Fellowship Hall downstairs on Thursdays, starting at 5:30pm. At our movie parties, we will watch the movie of the week in preparation for the coming Sunday morning. I do suggest if you can’t be at the movie parties, you watch the movie on your own before Sunday to prepare you for the sermon. … How many of you have seen the movie Elf before?
Elf is a more recent Christmas classic, hitting the big screen in 2003, that has quickly become a new favorite in many households as the comedian Will Ferrell plays the adult role of a child who was raised as an elf in the North Pole. Having learned that he – who is much larger in size than the rest of the elves in the toy shop – was not born an elf, Buddy, as his character is named, ventures out of the North Pole, landing in New York City to reconnect with his birth father.
There are many lessons we could glean from the movie – some of which have absolutely no bearing out the true nature of Christmas, but are just good life lessons. For example, there are four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup. A well balanced meal, consistent of these four food groups, will make every child happy, and will leave parents without the normal struggle to get their toddlers to eat at the dinner table.
Other good life lessons include: when you find used gum on the street, it does not equal free candy; the yellow cars in New York City (aka taxis) don’t like to stop; and just because they have a sign that says they serve the world’s best coffee, it doesn’t guarantee you the coffee will be good.
Great life lessons – but where’s the faithful message in Elf? How do we look deeper into this Christmas commercialization to find a message that resonates with our text in Luke’s gospel?
As I mentioned, Buddy was born a human, but he found his way to the North Pole, and there he was taken in by Papa Elf, one of the elder elves. Buddy was raised as an elf, educated as an elf, and though not an elf, he was indoctrinated with the code of the elves. The code of the elves has a lot to offer to those who seek to be faithful to God, not just in this season, but year round. So today, I want us to focus on the code of the elves for some pop cultural guidance on faithful Christmas living.
The first rule in the code of the Elves is, Treat every day like Christmas.
In the hope and expectation of Christmas, we prepare ourselves in the season of Advent to once again celebrate the birth of Christ. We are called to reflect on the darkness that exists in our lives and in our world, and to repent – acknowledging the need of our world for the hope and light that is offered to us by God in Christ. Imagine what the rest of the year would look like if we were constantly – not just in these coming four weeks – but constantly living as if Christmas were today – each day. How would the world be different if each day we lived as if there was nothing else that mattered but the love shared with family, friends, and community because of the reminder of God’s covenant and sacrifice, as remembered in the birth of Christ.
If we lived every day as if it were Christmas Day, imagine what the world would look like? Just think about the financial and gift giving that takes places in honor of the Christmas holiday – and I don’t mean the gifts that that fill up under the tree. For the past few weeks, and going forward for the coming weeks, we are collecting gifts for the Angel Tree, providing for low-income families along the Route 1 corridor; we’re collecting uniforms and calculators for the students at Jefferson Houston here in Old Town; we have all these wonderful hand-made stockings that are going to two local Safe Haven homes; we are collecting change to go to the Mary Gabriel Carmack Fund that helps provide for children in our community; we will be taking food out to serve our homeless neighbors lunch two Sundays from now following worship; and we’re going to be taking a special offering on Christmas Eve that will go toward the Washington Street Early Education Fund, which will provide early childhood education opportunities for low-income families in the City of Alexandria. That’s just the work we’re doing here at Washington Street – every local church ramps up their end of year giving opportunities because are more willing and wanting to give in the Christmas Season. And there are other national opportunities this time of year such as the major non-profit giving day, known as #givingtuesday, that takes place this Tuesday. Last year, #givingtuesday efforts raised over $115 million for non-profit causes.
Imagine if that generosity of the heart – the generosity that seizes us all in the Christmas season – were not reserved for just this time of year, but was offered and experienced every day of the year. Imagine how much more God’s love would be felt and known around the world January to November if we Treated Every Day Like Christmas.
The second rule in the code of the elves is, There’s room for everyone on the nice list.
Let’s look back at our scriptural text for the day: the angels have gone out to the shepherds and they are making known to the shepherds the birth of Jesus. The invitation of the angels to the shepherds marks the second step in the formation of the nativity that is so well known by anyone who celebrates Christmas.
We see here our nativity – the first step is that we have the mother Mary, the father, Joseph, and the baby Jesus as our central focus. Then we see all who have gathered for the birth – the shepherds, the sheep, the angels, and the cows. The wise men are here, mistakenly because realistically the magi didn’t show up for quite a while, but we’ll go with it. We have this picturesque nativity that often clouds our understanding of what was actually taking place that first Christmas morning. Because this nativity scene is what we think of when we think of Christmas, we often miss the deep glory of the real story.
I know that no one likes a Debbie Downer, but I want to ruin your picturesque Hallmark nativity scene this morning. I want us to move beyond the fairy tale of the Christmas story, which provides for surface level faith, to a deeper understanding of what actually was taking place in the Christmas story. I promise, when we’re done, we can go back – but let’s walk to the real manger together for a moment.
When a mother and a father prepare to give birth, the first person they call, and the call usually includes an invitation to come and meet the baby, is the parents. Likely the parents of the mother first, then the parents of the father. That’s just how it happens. Once the parents have been called, then the new mother and father start to go down the rest of their ‘must call’ list. It usually includes immediate siblings on both sides, and maybe one or two best friends. They don’t always extend the invitation to visit, but if there is an invitation, it most certainly goes to those on the ‘must call’ list. After that list has been notified and invited, the next step is to post the birth announcement and pictures on Facebook. In one quick click of the button, everyone else is made privy to the birth.
That is most often how it looks like today. Now, we know, Mary and Joseph didn’t have the benefit of the telephone or Facebook. I mean, can you imagine if they did? Can you imagine the number of likes those photos of the baby Jesus would have received?! I’m jealous just thinking of it.
Mary and Joseph were in Joseph’s hometown, Bethlehem. They had returned to his home town for the census. But even being back home, no family members received notification of the birth. The first people invited to come and meet the child were those who normally would have never been invited – the shepherds. Again, we have to break from the nativity norms, which make the shepherds look like these peaceful and angelic young men.
Shepherds weren’t neighbors, and they weren’t welcomed community. In fact, there are some scriptural texts that tell us shepherds weren’t to be trusted.[i] They were dirty people, often younger men, who wandered the hill sides taking care of sheep because they could find no other jobs. The shepherds held a role that was comparable in scriptural speak to the prestige of tax collectors. They weren’t welcomed people in society.
Yet, the angels went and invited the shepherds to come and be present for the Christmas birth. They were the first who were invited to welcome the new born Son of God into the world.
The nativity scene isn’t a scene that invites those who are wealthy and prestigious; it’s not a scene that invites those who are righteous and faithful; it’s not a scene that is intended to make a place for those who have everything in order. The nativity scene is presented by the scriptural text as a place for the outcasts, the forgotten, the judged, the dirty, and the unloved.
So we should remember that, when following rule one and living every day as if it were Christmas, we must uphold rule two, and remember there’s room for everyone on the nice list and it is our call as faithful disciples to share God’s love with each and every person.
And then the final rule in the code of the elves is, The best way to spread Christmas Cheer is singing loud for all to hear.
The shepherds encountered the angels who sang of the heavenly child’s birth. They went and found Mary and Joseph, and they met the child. And having seen this, they went forth and they made known what they had found – praising and glorifying God for all they had seen and heard. And at their testimony – at their songs of praise – many people heard and were amazed.
We know that in the movie, Elf, it is the impromptu singing that fills the sled with Christmas spirit. I don’t know about you, but it is in the singing of the great Christmas hymns, the carols, and the melodies of this season that help me celebrate Christmas most. Since Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, I have had the Christmas music turned up in my car and around the house throughout the day – because the joy of the music – singing of Christ’s entrance into the world – singing of God’s love exclaimed by the angels – celebrating the diversity of God’s reach and the invitation to the shepherds – celebrating the humility of God’s entrance in the manger – it is the joy and the hope of God’s transforming love in the world offered in song that unites and joins the universal body of God’s creation together in a way nothing else can.
It was the song of the angels that brought the shepherds, and the song of the shepherds that amazed those who heard the words. In a world that is broken and hurting, in a country that is divisive and torn, in a society that has businesses seeking to reap benefits off the gravesites of others, and in a season of reflection regarding the darkness in our world, we would be wise the hear the words of the disciple, Buddy the Elf:
Treat every day as if it’s Christmas; there’s room for everyone on the nice list; and the best way to spread Christmas Cheer is singing loud for all to hear. So don’t be shy, but join in the chorus of the angels and the shepherds, and spread Christmas cheer by singing loud for all to hear. May we celebrate and rejoice in the good news of great joy, that Christ our King is to be born – let us prepare our hearts this season together to welcome the Savior child. Amen.