From Exile to Hope: December 8, 2022

From Exile to Hope: December 8, 2022

December 08, 2022

How the Grinch can just take Christmas… Please…

By: Pastor Nate Mason


The older I get, the more I identify with the Grinch. I mean the old school, Dr. Suess original or even the 1966 TV movie featuring Boris Karloff. The modern incarnations of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the Jim Carey or Benedict Cumberbatch versions) try to make the Grinch a tragic character to make him seem relatable. I find that completely unnecessary. The OG Grinch didn’t like Christmas. I get it.

All the Who girls and all the who boys would wake bright and early. They’d rush for their toys. And then! Oh the noise! Oh, the Noise! Noise! Noise!! That’s the one thing he hated! The NOISE! NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!

Christmas is noisy.

Not just from all the girls and all the boys rushing for their toys; however, that does add quite a bit of sound pollution to my life with my 2 and 2/3rds children. My wife has a childless younger brother who feels it is his duty as an uncle to get my children the loudest, most chaotic toys he can find. Of course, my dear brother-in-law fails to realize that I have twenty more years of uncle experience than he has. Whenever he gets around to starting a family, my vengeance shall be sevenfold!
  
No, more than just toys, the entire world is noisier right now, and I don’t quite understand the logistics of it all. The wait to check out at the grocery store is three times longer than it was back in October, and the pumps at my preferred gas station are always full.[i] Why? I get that the malls, the Targets, and the Walmarts would be having a massive, month long, Christmas rush, but the grocery stories and gas stations seem weird. Are people stocking up on car and bodily fuel so they can better brave the commercial jungle of Christmas time retail?
  
Our schedules get noisier. Christmas parties, Christmas socials, this side of the family’s Christmas gathering, that side’s Christmas gathering,[ii] Christmas programs… Oh the noise, noise noise! I feel you Mr. Grinch. The classic hymn, Silent Night is delusionally aspirational. That first Christmas could not have been silent. Childbirth and newborn babies don’t work like that, I don’t care how immaculate and dual natured it was, it just doesn’t work like that. The first Christmas was full of noise, anxiety, crying, and pain. I feel like most of my Christmases are the same! But we want that silent night. We need that silent night. God commanded a silent night.

Back to the beginning

We make a bigger deal about Christmas than the Bible does. There are only 2.5 nativity stories in the four Gospels. Matthew spends more time talking about Jesus’s ancestors, Luke goes into more detail about John the Baptist’s birth than Jesus’. John only gets half credit for being so vague, but still John’s account is my favorite.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Christ was there in the beginning. Before the wisemen, the shepherds, the virgin birth, and angelic EPT visits, Christ was. The light was. The life was. We humans might have needed all of this to really connect with Light and the Life, but it was always there shining through the darkness; trying to cut through all they noise. It’s fitting then that we go back to the beginning to find some divine guidance on how to cope with the modern struggles of the holidays.

In the second chapter of the first book of the Bible, God gives us his second commandment[iii] to take a rest for our labors on the seventh day of the week. Take a Sabbath for (literally) God’s sake! Later in Exodus and Deuteronomy, God reinforces the Sabbath commandment by making it number four in his big ten. That’s two spots above “do not murder.” That seems important. It also seems related. I feel more inclined to want to murder people when I haven’t had my rest. Not that I ever have, or ever would, murder someone. Probably. In this busy, wild, Christmas time we feel like we cannot spare the time to observe the Sabbath, but it’s more important than ever.

The Sabbath starts with healthy boundaries.

The bible begins with God setting boundaries. He separated light from dark, the sea from the sky, the land from the sea, and so on until he finally separates the Sabbath from the rest of the week. Oh man are we bad at observing these temporal boundaries! “Christmas” has been starting before Thanksgiving, we mix in Epiphany imagery just to confuse the issue, it plows through Advent like it’s nothing, and ends abruptly on December 25th the day it’s actually supposed to start! The whole purpose of the Sabbath is to rest and abide in the faith and comfort that God is with you, God is providing for you, God will sustain you. In order to practice that faith and trust in God, you have to put up some healthy boundaries in your own life. For “high functioning” individuals, those boundaries are for personal accountability. We have been raised to believe in the” Protestant Work Ethic” as a virtuous badge of honor. I cannot imagine God’s kingdom coming about without me personally making the path straight for the Lord, raising the valleys, leveling the mountains, and making sure the bulletins are printed and recruiting greeters to hand them out. Trust and rest can’t happen if we are making ourselves busy worrying about our to do list. For people like us, the Sabbath is more than just rest, it’s a chance for us to remember that we cannot control everything, and we don’t need to. We need this weekly spiritual practice so we can emotionally prepare ourselves for when we are faced with an uncontrollable situation so we can respond with grace and acceptance rather than going all Grinch and looting and pillaging Whoville.

Observing the Sabbath requires us to set healthy boundaries with others. The Sabbath doesn’t have to be Sunday. In fact, according to the Bible, it’s on Saturday. The day of the week does not matter in the slightest, it just matters that you make that day holy. I, like most pastors, make Monday our Sabbath. We survived another round of worship service(s) so we deserve a treat! At every appointment, there’s always that one member who cannot wrap their brain around the fact that pastors need to observe the Sabbath. They see it as just “a day off” and their issue must be addressed immediately[iv]rather than waiting until Tuesday for a response. At this point, rather than being annoyed that these members don’t respect my boundaries, I see it as an opportunity to practice using one of the holiest words in the English language: No.

If you are a faithful reader of this, or any, newsletter from the Conference, I think it’s a safe assumption that you do not use this sacred word often. Most church work (or all work for that matter) gets done by the constant volunteers. Every congregation knows who amongst them cannot utter the word no. So they come to you. All the time. With everything. We will fill your life up with such business that you will never find rest or reprieve! You should tell us no. You need to tell us no. You cannot say “yes” to observing God’s Sabbath, if you don’t say “no” to the busy work the world throws at you. Make the Sabbath your reason to tell us no. God has not just given you permission to do this, he commanded it. Remember: this commandment made it higher on this list than no murdering. Practice the Sabbath and it will make sense as to why.  

O Holy Night

Holy is one of those churchy words that we feel more than we understand. I think the best operative definition of “Holy” is “to be set apart for God.” “Set apart.” There’s that whole boundaries thing again. If we are honest, Christmas is more of a secular holiday than a religious one anymore, and that’s a good thing! Two generations ago, 80% of all Americans lived within 50 miles of where they were born. Now, it’s less than 20%. Our families have scattered to the four winds. Every Christmas Eve service, my churches are half full with families from Texas, Missouri, Washington, and North Carolina, but my churches are half empty from the members who are going to visit their families in Florida, Colorado, and Arizona. My own family has moved to Wyoming, and my wife’s family is in South Dakota. Every night when we pray, my daughter prays for her “spread out family.” Families are important, and we need a time where we can all gather together. Family is the reason why the Christmas season is so chaotic. We aren’t out fighting the crowds to buy gifts for Jesus. We aren’t traveling thousands of miles to get to Bethlehem. We are putting up with all the noise because we love our family and want to be with them. God wants that too, but we need to remember that God created our family, but our family is not God. Paul’s line in Romans 1:25 comes to mind:
 
They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.[v]

That first Christmas was full of noise, anxiety, crying, and pain, but also it was filled with joy, love, and hope. It was where one young couple became a family. Take any time you can get with your family. It’s hard to find it. God is always available for visits. Make your Sabbath holy as often as you can. Set apart that one day a week for God so you can be rested. In your rested state may God fill your heart with so much love and joy it grows at least two sizes this Christmas.  

 


[i] Unless you live in a one station town, everybody has their preferred gas station.  I get wildly inconvenienced when I have to drive the nominal quarter mile to my next favorite gas station.  Rationally, this makes no sense, but this is a universal truth. 
[ii] One unintentionally convenient thing about being a pastor is that I always have an out when it comes to Christmas scheduling.  I just tell all sides of my family “Sorry we can’t make it, I have to work Christmas Eve.”  
[iii] The first commandment found in Genesis 1 is to “Be fruitful and multiply.”  Please practice responsibly. 
[iv] In over a decade of ministry, there has yet to be a single instance when it could not have waited. 
[v] That verse is taken WAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaay out of context, but the underlying warning against idolatry of created things still applies.  
 
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