What for you is the message of Christmas? We certainly hear a lot of messages this time of year. I was on YouTube a few days ago looking at some recent Christmas commercials, and many of them have messages and slogans designed for the season. Some are pretty much what you’d expect: The auto manufacturer Honda targets the Generation X market with an ad suggesting that if as a child, unwrapping a plastic Six Million Dollar Man action figure on Christmas morning made you feel good, you’ll feel way better now if you buy yourself a $30,000 car. In a spot set aboard the International Space Station, Macy’s tells us to Believe in the Wonder of Giving. Apple hits a similar tone with a Pixar-inspired story that urges us: Share Your Gifts.
Amazon shows us an ever-growing army of sentient Prime packages spreading all over the world, singing over and over “Can you feel it? Can you feel it?” The main thing I feel there is a little threatened by the reach of the Amazon Industrial Complex. If you saw the satirical version of the ad that replaced the holiday soundtrack with the ominous theme to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, maybe you do too. Can you feel it?
nother slogan-as-question, from McDonald’s, is more pushy: there’s a cute narrative about how Santa gets cookies but the reindeer never get carrots, and it closes by asking: Are you #ReindeerReady? (Oh my gosh, I don’t know. What does that mean? Is there a checklist?) Coke wants us to do something too: The world needs more Santas, they inform us: #BeSanta. (Be Santa? Me? I can’t deliver presents Christmas Eve, I have to work. These holiday demands are getting overwhelming.)
It’s interesting to me, the way this year’s round of Christmas advertising seems to tend towards imperatives. An imperative, grammatically, is the name for the verb form that is an order: Do this. Be Santa. Bring me some eggnog. Finish the checklist. Achieve your goals. That’s the kind of language so many of these ads are using around Christmas: telling us what we should do or asking if we’ve done it yet.
I have no hard data on this, but it seems to me that until fairly recently, secular Christmas language was more centered on warmth and generic well-wishing. Peace, goodwill, family, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, apple trees and honey bees and snow-white turtle doves, little holiday chocolates ringing like bells, may your days be merry and bright and may all your Christmases be white. It was vague, admittedly, as if someone had taken a photo of the historic Christmas message but ramped up the blur filter to about 90%. It was vague, blurry goodwill -- but it didn’t make the season our responsibility like these messages do. Share your gifts! Be Santa! Are you Reindeer ready? As a Christian, I can’t help but find this language of exhortation and obligation completely out of place at Christmas time. Actually, as a Christian it seems out of place to me period, and I am so grateful that thanks to Jesus Christ I know I don’t have to live that way.
When you look at our readings for this evening, the last thing you see is exhortation and obligation. You see almost no examples of any language telling you what you should, must, can, or ought to do. What you see is not imperatives, but indicatives. That’s the verb form that just states what happened. The stars came out. Mom flew in from Houston. I got a puppy for Christmas. That’s the indicative, simply saying what happened.
Now many spiritual and religious traditions focus on imperatives, things that are up to you. Indicatives, what happened, aren’t so important for many spiritual paths; what’s important is the values you choose and the steps you take. Take a minute to google questions about spirituality, that’s definitely what you’ll get: imperatives, things that are your responsibility to do. Journal your thoughts. Meditate 10 minutes a day. Cultivate a positive attitude. Eat more natural foods. Read a daily reflection. That kind of language is pretty much what our world has come to take for granted that spirituality is about. We may not be sure what spirituality itself is, but whatever it is, we figure it’s up to us.
But that’s not how we approach things in Christianity. Christianity is full of indicatives: what happened. What God did. Christianity tells us over and over that it’s not up to us, that what life is all about is receiving a gift. Unwrapping a present. Discovering what has already been done for you. That’s what changes everything. Read our texts, and they are full of indicatives; they tell us what has happened, for us. “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people,” it says. “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is the Messiah, the Lord.” It happened. We didn’t have to #BeSanta or get #ReindeerReady; what God asked of us was to receive the news.
And it’s still that way. Indicative, not imperative. All three of our readings from Scripture tonight tell us not that we should be peaceful, or that we should act more kindly or cultivate a positive attitude. First off, we already know that. Members of all religions know that. We also all know that we don't do it as well as we would like to. Hearing what we should do isn’t good news of great joy, it's not even news at all. It’s advice. It’s yet more things to take on and be responsible for. It’s a burden.
Christmas does not burden us with advice, it liberates us with news. News that lifts the burden off our backs and transfers all the weights we lug around onto God. All our readings tonight are news, breaking news of liberation.
This just in: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
Our top story tonight: To you is born a Savior who is the Messiah, the Lord.
We bring you this special bulletin: The grace of God has appeared!
Those are all things that happened. Indicative, not imperative. What God has done, not what you should do. Now look, you may not understand how it works. You may not understand how the appearance of the grace of God in Jesus can make a difference for you. You may not understand how to receive the liberation he brings from the sense of guilt and duty that burden humanity. You may not know how to let go of having to treat life as all up to you and spirituality as burdensome advice rather than good news. That’s OK. We can teach you. That’s why we’re here. That’s what we do all year long.
We don’t expect you to understand it all before you can come celebrate Christmas with us. There’s no checklist of religious opinions here. There’s nothing to measure up to. There’s just divine mercy and grace for anyone whose heart is able to find even a tiny sliver of tonight’s news plausible enough that you want to come closer to it.
On this holy night the grace of God has appeared. To us is born a Savior. And once that happened, once God was born as one of us, he never withdrew again. Once he gave away his life on the Cross to make us his own, he never went back on the offer. His salvation continues to change people. His liberation is available to anyone who is willing to receive the gift.
It's our top story tonight: The grace of God has appeared, not because of what we did but because he loves us. The grace of God has appeared and it's never going away again. Thanks be to God, and Merry Christmas.