The Lights of Christmas
December 10th, 1967 @ 8:15 AM
THE LIGHTS OF CHRISTMAS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
12-10-67 8:15 a.m.
On the radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the morning message entitled The Lights of Christmas. I have three passages to read. They are just a background of the development of a theme that I pray will be a blessing to our hearts. The first is in the second chapter of Matthew:
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold there came magi from the East to Jerusalem,
saying, Where is He that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East, and are come to worship Him.
[Matthew 2:1, 2]
Out of the passage that we read together this morning from the fifth chapter, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew: "Ye are the light of the world . . . Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" [Matthew 5:14, 16]. And the third passage is in the second chapter of Philippians, verse 15: "That you be blameless,the sons of God,in the midst of a perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world" [Philippians 2:15]. And from this passage I chose the title, The Lights of Christmas. But the development of the message is going to be in an altogether different mode from what you might at first think.
It begins with a common, a most common and repeated assault against the observance of the nativity of the Lord at this time of the year and in this way. The charge is made so frequently, and repeated so constantly, that Christmas is a pagan festival and ought not to be countenanced by the true Christian people. I have heard that all of my life. And the crescendo increases, it does not wane. And they point to all of the accouterments that attend this festival, and go back into history and find so much of it that is heathen, and pagan, pre-Christian, unchristian, and not Christian. Now with a great deal of what is said against the observance of Christmas in the manner and the way it is so commonly and worldly celebrated, there is much that we can agree with. And I shall speak of that in the last part of the message.
But the first part of the sermon this morning is an avowal that of all of the celebrations in the Christian churches, there is none that is more Christian than the celebration of Christmas; and I include in that Easter, for Easter also has roots and repercussions from pagan and heathen practices, just as Christmas does. But to celebrate Christmas, I am saying, is as Christian as to celebrate Easter. And out of all of the glorious festive occasions, joyous occasions, triumphant celebrations in the churches of our Lord, that none is more apropos and none is more historically and doctrinally Christian than is our celebration of Christmas, the nativity of our Savior. All right, let’s begin with that.
A long time ago, in the first Christian centuries, there developed in the Christian faith two branches of the express mediation of the love of our Lord in the churches. One is known in the history as the Eastern Orthodox Church, a Greek-speaking church. The other is the Roman Church, the Latin-speaking church, the Western church. And over there in the Eastern part of Christendom, in the Greek-speaking church, there developed a hurtful and widespread heresy. It was called "adoptionism," and the adoptionists celebrated the sixth day of January as the day of the incarnation of our Lord. They were colored by Gnostic philosophy which simply covered the whole great philosophical, theological world. And the Gnostic philosophy had as one of its major tenants that God – whoever He was, they never tried to define Him – but the supreme Being of this universe was so far removed, and so holy, and pure, and untouchable, and unknowable and that matter was so evil that God, far removed, could not come in touch with the world so vile. So the Gnostic philosophers postulated emanations from God; they called them eons. You might call them superior angels. And so there was one emanation, or one eon, who was right next to God Himself, and then from him was an emanation a little more down, and then beyond that was a eon, and beyond that one was an emanation, and beyond that one was a eon, until finally in the long series of emanations there finally came a manifestation of God that was far enough removed from the supreme Being of the universe to come into contact with matter. And that is a basic tenant of Gnosticism.
So when the Christian religion was preached, the Gnostic philosophers fit their philosophy into the Christian gospel. And as they went down the line in those emanations, in those eons, in those angels, as they went down the line, finally they came to the place where they could identify one with Jesus. And those Eastern Gnostic philosophers and theologians said that Jesus was the last emanation, He was the last substance of deity who in that long series finally came down in contact with the earth. Then they had another twist to it. They said that the incarnation – that is the investiture of deity – came upon Christ at His baptism when the Holy Spirit came upon Him and anointed Him [Matthew 3:16], that that was the coming of that emanation upon Jesus, and that out of baptism, Jesus became deity, that the incarnation of God occurred upon the occasion of His baptism. And they celebrated that feast of the epiphany they called it epiphany; that is, that is a Greek word meaning the "appearance," the "appearance" of God – they celebrated that feast of the epiphany, they celebrated the incarnation, they celebrated Christmas on the sixth day of January. And that heresy of "adoptionism" – they get the word "adoptionist," "adoption" because they said Jesus was "adopted" into deity at His baptism – they celebrated that feast on the sixth day of January.
Now that heresy spread all over the Christian world, and finally it poured into Western Christianity, into the Latin world. There were two tremendous changes made in that doctrine when it came over into the Latin Church, into the Roman Church, into Western Christianity. First, they changed the doctrine of it. And second, they changed the day of it. They changed the doctrinal aspect of it when the Western Church said, "There is no such thing as the incarnation of Christ at His baptism. Christ became God incarnate when He was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary and the nativity of God – the incarnation of God – is not at His baptism [Matthew 3:13-17], but at His birth" [Matthew 1:20-23]. Then the second thing they did, they changed the date from the sixth day of January to the twenty-fifth day of December.
Now I want to follow through for a moment the reasons why the Western Church, the Latin Church, changed that doctrine of adoptionism. The first reason is theological. It is doctrinal. The Western Church insisted that according to the Holy Scriptures, God became man when the Virgin Mary was found with child of the Holy Spirit, when the angel Gabriel announced to this virgin Jewess who lived in Nazareth in Galilee:
Wherefore the Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: and that Holy thing that shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God [Luke 1:35]. And all this came to pass that it might fulfilled . . . Behold, a virgin shall be with child . . . and shall call His name Immanuel, that is God is with us [Matthew 1:22-23].
So the Western Church repudiated completely the whole idea of adoptionism, and said that the incarnation of God was not at the Lord’s baptism [Matthew 3:16-17] or at any other time, but that God became incarnate when Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary [Matthew 1:23].
Now the second reason for the change was practical. The Western Church at first tried to observe the nativity – the incarnation of God – on the sixth day of January. They tried valiantly, and they tried for years and years, but so indelibly impressed was that heresy of adoptionism and so deeply was it incised in the thoughts and in the celebrations of the people that they found it impossible to celebrate the nativity of our Lord on the sixth day of January because the Feast of the Epiphany – the appearance of God, the incarnation of God – was somehow put together when the baptism of our Lord in the celebration on the sixth day of January.
Then they faced another thing. As they tried to change the date from the sixth day of January to some other date, there had been in Rome for centuries a feast called the Feast of Saturnalia, the Feast of Saturn. And then throughout all of Western Europe there was the feast of Brumalia, Latin "Bruma is with her." And in the midst of the winter, and in the heart of the winter, there was the celebration of the Novalis Invicti Solis – the birthday of the inconquerable sun. And on the twenty-fifth day of December, all of Western Europe celebrated the end of the long nights and the short days and the beginning of the coming back of the lengthened days and the appearance of the sun. And such a thing was sort of a psychological necessity because of the long dreary nights of Northern and Western Europe. So from centuries back, there had been in Rome the Saturnalia at the winter solstice when the longest night begins to shorten, and the day begins to lengthen and the same was true with all of Western Europe in its celebration of the Brumalia – the time when the light was again conquering the dark and the night. Now all of those celebrations of the Saturnalia in Rome, of the Brumalia of Western Europe, were pagan, and they were attended by every kind of orgiastic excess. Now the church had a tremendous difficulty with that, for the Christian people – they felt – and the faithful, God’s servants, should not share in those pagan festivities. Yet, they were so natural and at a time of the year where something like that was so needed.
And it was on that occasion, and it was at that time, that the church did something that I am amazed at, and you are too. Apparently the boldest and the most courageous of all of the strokes that the churches of Christ ever mustered or ever leveled was this: they set themselves to change the date of the nativity of our Lord – the celebration of the nativity of our Lord – from the sixth day of January, the Feast of the Epiphany, to the twenty-fifth day of December which was the Feast of Saturnalia and the Feast of Brumalia, and to Christianize all of those pagan, orgiastic practices and excesses. I could not imagine the church trying to do such a thing, but they did it. And they did it gloriously, and they did it triumphantly, and they did it victoriously. They took the Feast of Saturnalia and they took the Feast of Brumalia, and they said let us give you something really to thank God for, not in celebration of the S-U-N and his victory, but the celebration of S-O-N and God’s victory. And they Christianized the Saturnalia, and they Christianized the Brumalia, and they made of it a great worldwide, far flung Christian festival and they set the nativity of our Lord on the twenty-fifth day of December.
Why, when I read these things in history, I can hardly conceive of the courage and the devotion and the commitment of the churches of Jesus Christ as they tried to exalt and to glorify the incarnation of our Lord. That’s why I said to begin without of all of the festival times, victorious days in the Christian Church none is so Christian as Christmas itself. It represents a tremendous commitment on the part of God’s people to make the nativity of our Lord at the time of His birth and at a time when the people were in excess and in worldliness and pull them in to a marvelous celebration of the goodness of God in Christ Jesus.
Now may I apply it to us today? We have the same two problems that the churches faced in the first centuries of the Christian era. We also have a doctrinal problem, and we also have a practical problem. And as they faced it centuries ago, let us face it today. First, the doctrinal, theological problem; what the churches sought to do in the centuries gone by was to magnify the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, the nativity of our Lord when God came down in human flesh, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father [John 1:14]. How easy it is to lose sight of the great theological doctrine that lies back of the festivities of the twenty-fifth day of December. But we must set ourselves, as did those early churches, to magnify that theological and doctrinal revelation of God, that this is a celebration, this is a praise, this is a glory, this is a gratitude, when Jesus was born when God came down to take the form of a man [Philippians 2:6-8]. And in our Sunday school classes with little children, and with our songs that we sing, and in our Scripture readings that we read, and in all of the expressions of our church life, it ought always to be centered in this: that God became man – God was incarnate in Jesus Christ [Matthew 1:20-23] – and all the things that attend that story, the lights, the star, the manger, the mother, the family, the wise men, the shepherds, the Scriptures that were fulfilled [Matthew 2:1-2, 10-11; Luke 2:8-16], all of it ought to be constantly placed before our people and especially our children. This is the reason for the gladness, and the brightness, and the lights of this glorious day.
Second: we also have a practical problem, and that is we live in a world – it hasn’t changed; it’s not going to change not until Jesus comes. We have the same practical problems that the churches faced in those beginning centuries, for people ever and always who are unregenerate have a tendency to flow in worldly and in excessive directions. And this is why I read the Scriptures that "ye are the light of the world" [Matthew 5:14] and that we are to shine as lights in a darkened world [Philippians 2:15]. As those first Christians in the centuries ago sought to take their people and to make of the occasion a beautiful and a holy devotion to God, so we are to do in our world and in our generation.
Now may I very specific? First, in our day and in our time Christmastime is the time to get drunk. Christmastime is the time to throw an excessive, orgiastic party. Out of all of the year, there will be no time when the liquor store does such a business as he will do at Christmastime. But you, you shine. You, you shine! There will be no liquor served at our house. And we will not share in any orgiastic party at Christmastime, for to us this is the celebration of the nativity of our Lord, and to drink, and to serve liquor is unthinkable and unspeakable to us who love the Lord Jesus. This is a time when you are to shine.
Third: the world gives itself to all kinds of forgetfulness. The dinners we spread and the company we have all of which makes it impossible for us to go to God’s house. Now we may go to church at Easter, and we may go to church in beautiful weather, and we may go to church in the fall, but at Christmastime, "Oh, pastor, you don’t understand! My house is full of company, and I cannot go to church!" This is Christmastime. You, you shine! If ever you go to church, you go to church at Christmas, the season of the year. "Oh, but pastor, you don’t understand! My house is full of company!" Wonderful! What a glorious opportunity to witness for Jesus! Say to your company, "This is Christmas season, and we are celebrating the nativity, the incarnation of our Lord. We’re going to church. Come and go with us!" And if they go, fine. If they will not go, say to your company, "Make yourself at home. We are going to God’s house."
Ah! I’m reminded of that story when company came and visited the dear couple and the company stayed, and stayed, and stayed, and stayed. The night wore on and it got later, and later, and later and finally the man said to his wife, "Dear wife, let’s you and I go to bed so these dear people can go home." You do that. "Pastor, my house is full of company; I can’t come to church, this is Christmas!" You shine! We all go to church; this is Christmas. And if they don’t go, "You make yourself at home, and we’ll be back after the benediction is said." You shine.
Fourth: this is a time of the year when all of us are giving gifts to each other. That’s a good old pagan practice. That’s a good old heathen custom. That’s what they did during the Saturnalia, that’s what they did in the Brumalia. That’s a good old heathen custom. And it’s fine! But you, you shine! We’re going to give gifts to one another, there’s nothing wrong in that. I like it. Christmastime is a happy time, and we give gifts to one another in celebration of the unspeakable gift, but I shall also please the Lord. I shall give a gift to my Savior. "Well, pastor, where could I find the Savior that I give Him a gift?"
"Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these . . . ye have done it unto Me" [Matthew 25:40]. Or again, "Saul, Saul, why persecuteth thou Me?" [Acts 9:4]. Jesus is identified with His people, the poor, the needy, the missionary, God’s saints in the earth, His church, and when I give a gift to them, I bring a gift to Jesus. You shine.
I copied a little poem that a child speaks:
I had the nicest Christmas list,
The longest one in town.
Till Daddy looked at it and said,
"You’ll have to cut it down."
I knew that what he said was true,
Beyond the faintest doubt,
But was amazed to hear him say,
"You’ve left your best friend out!"
And so I scanned my list again,
And said, "Oh, that’s not true!"
But Daddy’s said, "His name’s not there,
That Friend who died for you."
And then I clearly understood,
‘Twas Jesus that he meant.
For Him who should come first of all,
I hadn’t planned a cent.
I made a Christmas birthday list,
And left the Savior out.
But oh, it didn’t take me long,
To change the list about.
And though I’ve had to drop some names
Of folks I like a lot,
My Lord must have the most because
His name is at the top!
["His Name is at the Top"; author unknown]
Do it. We shall give gifts to one another, but we shall not forget Him. You shine. Again, and the world shall revel in forgetfulness, but you, we shall make it a day and a season and an occasion of praise and gratitude to God.
That’s why I love for our people to sing – if ever they sing – I love for them to sing at Christmastime, "Glory to God; amen! Bless the name of the Lord; hallelujah!" What a hopeless, dark, and dreary world had there been no Lord Jesus. And to praise God and to thank God, as Paul says, "for His unspeakable gift" [2 Corinthians 9:15]. "For God so loved the world," as John says, "that He gave His only begotten Son" [John 3:16]. "And the Word was made flesh. . .and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father" [John 1:14]. "Unto Him who loved us. . .dominion, and praise, and glory, and majesty, now and forever and world without end. Amen. Amen." [Revelation 1:5-6] Sing it. Sing it! Sing it. When the world is drowned in forgetfulness and revelry, you shine like a star, thanking God and praising God.
And one other: and in the days that follow after, not only this season of the year, but everyday shall be a day of gratitude to the Lord, loving Jesus; facing the new year and all the year in the gracious and loving presence of our dear Savior. Postlude:
After the carols have faded,
And the gifts have been tucked away,
And the candles are stubs of formless wax,
And the snow has moldered to gray,
After the holly withers,
And the berries are rusted brown,
And the carpets sparkle with tinseled fir
When the needles came tumbling down,
After the dawn has ended
And the embers are burning low,
May the Christ, the Heart of Christmas
Still brighten the after glow.
["After the Carols Have Faded," Alice E Kennelly]
The day beyond, and the week; the new year that dawns, and every coming day, may it be bright and glorious with the sweet presence of Him who was born a child in Bethlehem [Matthew 1:20-2:1], who died for our sins on the tree [1 Corinthians 15:3], who was raised from the dead for our justification [Romans 4:25], who ascended to heaven [Acts 1:9-10] to make intercession for us [Romans 8:34; Hebrews 8:25], and who said, "I will be with you to the end of the way" [Matthew 28:20]. Oh, glory, glory, glory! This is the coming and the presence of the blessed God, even Jesus our Lord.
Now we must sing our song, and while we sing it, a family you, a couple you, one somebody you, give himself to Jesus, put his life in the fellowship of our church, come this morning. Make it now. Decide now, and in a moment when we stand to sing, come and stand by me. "Here I am, pastor, and here I come. This is my wife, these are our children, all of us are coming today." Or one somebody you, do it now, make it now, while we stand and while we sing.