Christmas is supposed to be a happy time of year. Yet for many people it is not. They may even dread it: “I will be glad when it is all over.” The problem of loneliness is highlighted every December. It may bring a reminder of a sad event in the past. Some people are overwhelmed with the stress it brings, in all the preparations necessary, and they often end up exhausted. There is an over-indulgence which has consequences in more than one area of life. Christmas is reckoned to be the season of goodwill but not infrequently it is the occasion of family fall-outs and squabbles. Many people get into debt which affects them into the new year.
The change in two decades
It is within the last half century that the Christmas festival has “taken off” in Scotland. Some of us remember when 25th December was a normal working day. The lifting of the former restraints in society and the commercial exploitation of the occasion, has made it what it is now. It is within the last quarter of a century that Christmas has taken hold in evangelical and Reformed Churches. It is twenty years ago this month that a break with tradition was made when the Free Church of Scotland congregation in Aberdeen introduced a carol service. The use of carols was justified on the grounds that it was not public worship and that it was an evangelistic endeavour. Now carol services and all kinds of Christmas activities are common in ‘professing to be Reformed’ congregations. Perhaps it is time to take note of what is happening and open up a debate about where we are heading. The implications for the future well-being of the Church are sobering.
What do we see in the changes that are taking place?
1) We see a reversal of what took place at the Reformation
The Church in Europe before the Reformation was in a Babylonian (or pagan) captivity. There was what was called “a medieval darkness”. Dr Sinclair Ferguson speaks of “an evangelical world that has begun to manifest symptoms of the same medieval sickness”, and says, “there is a medieval darkness encroaching on evangelicalism” (The Grace of Repentance, Crossway, 2011, p.40). That is why Luther was concerned for the reformation of the Church and even said on one occasion: “We should abolish all festivals, retaining only the Lord’s day”. (An Address to the German Nobility, 1520) Later Reformers went further, and as the powerful preaching of Puritan-minded preachers took hold in England and in Scotland, there resulted a banning of the Christmas festival. Just as the Reformed teaching and practice in the Churches have been declining over the last fifty years, so ‘the Christian Year’ and ‘religious festivals’ have come in to fill the vacuum.
2) We see ‘the glorious gospel of the blessed God’ obscured
The incarnation is a glorious Scriptural truth but it must not be divorced from the whole redemptive plan and purpose of God. We have to take a step back and consider that the purpose of creation was the glory of Christ: “all things were created by him and for him” (Col. 1:16). The purpose of redemption is that the Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in and through His body, the Church (Eph. 3:10). The Son is the object of the Father’s delight: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth” (Isa. 42:1). He will have all the glory: “I am the Lord; that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images.” (Isa. 42:8) The Gospel is primarily about the glory of the triune God: it is “the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1 Tim. 1:11). Peter reminds his readers that they are to “show forth the praises [excellencies] of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).
We live in a consumer society and this has affected the church. Contemporary evangelicalism presents the gospel as if it was a commodity to meet man’s needs. This is particularly true with regard to ‘the Christmas message’. It transmutes the truth of the plight of the sinner by nature and glosses over the implications of the cross and following Christ (Matt 16:22-25). It is acceptable to worldly people because there is virtually no offence in it.
An American writer, Paul Tripp, in a recent blog, asked the question: ‘Are there lies in your Christmas Tree?’ He goes on to say: “This false rendition of the Christmas story puts human pleasure at the centre. It tells our children to look for life in the creation, rather than in the Creator. It tells them lies about who they are and what they need. It presents a world that needs no tree of sacrifice, no Messiah Lamb, and no life-giving resurrection. This story forgets that the world our children live in is miserably broken, that it groans waiting for redemption (Romans 8:22-23). This story neglects to tell our children that they are a grave danger to themselves because of the sin that lives inside them. And it surely doesn’t tell them that they were created to intentionally surrender their lives to the greater purposes, plans, and glory of God.”
3) We see ‘a sensory feast, but a hearing famine’
The progress of the gospel in the New Testament era was due to the unadorned preaching of the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit. There were no frills and no gimmicks. The conversion of 3,000 people on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41) was followed by another 5,000 men (Acts 4:4). “And the word of God increased and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly” (Acts 6:7). It was the preached Word that turned the Roman world upside down (Acts 17:6). It is the same thing that happened at the time of the glorious Reformation, when Martin Luther said, “the Word did it all”. We have a similar pattern in the many revivals down through the centuries.
It is seldom acknowledged today that the Christian, and the Church as a whole, is brought into being by the Word of God. The Word is creative, as it was at the beginning (Gen. 1:1). It is God the Creator who defines truth and reality. He created man in His own image, “in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness” (Shorter Catechism Q/A 10). Truth and reality prevailed in the creation at the first. Then Satan cast doubt upon the Word of God. Adam and Eve succumbed to the lie and a rival world of unreality came into existence. It is in this world that the sinner is by nature and he needs to be confronted with his plight and danger in order that he may flee for refuge to Christ. God’s answer to the plight was to send His Son into the world “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). Jesus Christ is the Truth, declaring: “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). He has countered the lie of Satan. God’s Word is sent forth to destroy the work of Satan in the sinner by conviction and conversion. The sinner is united to Christ in regeneration, through the Word and the Spirit, and now lives in a state of reality. “And we know that we are of God and the whole world lieth in wickedness [or, in the Wicked One].” (1 John 5:19).
As the new creation, the church comes into being through the Word, so it has to be sustained by the same Word. The church is the place where God’s Word is spoken. The preached Word is how God is actively present. Martin Luther showed how God’s speech is the primary mode of His presence. Thus the absence of God’s speech is the absence of God, a very terrible situation to contemplate. Commenting on Amos 8:11, Luther observes: “I shall send a famine on the land. This is the last blow. It is the worst, the most wretched of all. All the rest of the blows would be bearable, but this is absolutely horrible.” (Quoted in Luther on the Christian Life by Carl Trueman, 2015, p.88) God’s dealing with His people Israel was “that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread alone but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God doth man live” (Deut. 8:3).
To quote Sinclair Ferguson again: “Worship is increasingly becoming a spectator event of visual and sensory power rather than a verbal event in which we engage in a deep social dialogue with the Triune God. Contemporary evangelicalism tends to focus on what ‘happens’ in a spectacle rather than what is heard in worship. Aesthetics, be they artistic or musical, are given priority over bowing underneath the authority of what God says. More and more is seen; less and less is heard. There is a sensory feast but a hearing famine.” (The Grace of Repentance, p.45).
4) We see the Lord’s Day becoming peripheral
In the 1950s, as before, people worked a six (or five and a half) day week, and looked forward to a rest on the Lord’s Day when businesses closed down and there was relative calm. It was the pattern set for man at the creation of the world . Since ‘Christmas fever’ took over the country we have extended hours for shopping in the run up to the Day. Christmas Day is observed as a kind of Sabbath. It is no wonder people suffer from stress and have breakdowns! What is even sadder is that those who exalt the Christmas festival in the church tend to put that observance before the keeping of the Lord’s Day. When Christmas falls on the Lord’s Day it is becoming the pattern in most congregations for only one morning service to be held, so that families can enjoy the festive day. The Biblical order is being turned on its head.
We are losing the creation and redemption significance of the Sabbath. It was given for the good of man in the unfallen creation. God was to be first in man’s life. It was a holy day set aside to safeguard the very heart of man’s relationship to God. It is taken up in the Covenant of Grace to be a sign of the special relationship, first with Israel (Exod 31:12-17) and then with His elect people. It is a day blessed by God in which the Christian can satisfy his need for fellowship, and God fulfils His desire for fellowship with His Church. It is a day for “holy convocation” (Lev. 23:27). It is a day for the public assembly of God’s people. It is a sign to the world around that we are a people who belong to the Lord. This is something a festival such as Christmas cannot signify. When man-made festivals are observed the Lord’s Day is sidelined.
Iain Murray points out how ‘the compilers of the Westminster Directory considered it essential to include a section on “The Sanctification of the Lord’s Day”. In short they believed that a true view of public worship stands or falls with a true view of the sanctification of that day (To Glorify and Enjoy God, 1994, p.190). J C Ryle warned: “It will always be found that where there is no Sabbath, there is no public worship. Once let people begin with no Sabbath, and no ministry, and it would never surprise me if they ended with no public worship, no religion and no God.” (Knots Untied, 1896, p.347) Solemn words!
“The Sabbath is the market-day of the soul, the cream of time… This is the soul’s festival-day on which the graces act their part: the other days of the week are most employed about earth, this day about heaven; then you gather straw, now pearl… On this day holy affections are quickened; the stock of grace is improved; corruptions are weakened; and Satan falls like lightning before the majesty of the Word.” (Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments, revised edition, 1962, p.97)