The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Tag: Christmas (page 1 of 2)

Jesus, Christmas, and Hanukkah

Christmas can be a controversial subject in Christian circles.

In our modern climate of culture wars, the battle of Christmas creeps up every year. You know what I’m talking about: the debate between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” as the appropriate seasonal greeting. Secular extremists claim that being wished “Merry Christmas” forces Christianity upon them, and Christian extremists claim to be persecuted by political correctness if any other greeting is used. As I have written before, I refuse to take offense about such things, so this particular controversy is not a great concern to me. I sympathize with the “Keep Christ in Christmas” crowd, but it is not a banner I regularly wave. I cheerfully wish “Merry Christmas” to people without a second thought or any ulterior motive.

If you are not part of the fellowship of Churches of Christ, you might be unaware that some Christians actually have the opposite concern: they want to keep Christ out of Christmas. At first glance this may seem unbelievable, but traditionally, members of Churches of Christ have been uncomfortable with celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday (i.e. the birth of Jesus). To my knowledge, there are three reasons for this.

First, historically, Jesus was almost certainly not born on December 25. The Bible does not tell us exactly when Jesus was born. He was born at a time when shepherds were out in the fields with their sheep, and although it is possible that sheep would be grazing in the outskirts of Bethlehem in the middle of winter, it is not prime sheep-grazing time. Since we don’t know when Jesus was born but do know that he most likely was not born on December 25, some people are uncomfortable with seeming to support a factual error. I understand that concern, but I think it is possible to observe the holiday while also maintaining historical accuracy.

Second, many people claim that Christmas has pagan origins. This is a common and generally-accepted claim, but it is also historically inaccurate. As far as I can tell, there may be specific aspects of the ways that people celebrate Christmas that have some pagan connections, but the origins of the holiday itself are not pagan. And even if they were, the reality is that there are a lot of things in our culture that have roots in paganism that don’t bother us today. For example, the names of many of our months and days have roots in paganism, but I don’t ever remember anyone rising up in arms about how terrible it is that we celebrate the god Thor every Thursday. Regardless, the historical reality that Christmas was not co-opted from pagan celebrations should render this argument irrelevant.

Third, and perhaps most important, is the argument that the Scriptures do not command us to celebrate the birth of Jesus and thus, do not authorize us to do so. We do celebrate the death and the resurrection of Jesus through the Lord’s Supper and are commanded to do so, but we have no similar command to observe Jesus’ birth, so the argument goes.

Here’s the problem with that third argument: Jesus’ own behavior illustrates that it is permissible to observe religious holidays that are not prescribed in Scripture.

In the Gospel of John, one of the recurring themes that John uses to describe the life of Jesus is Jewish religious feasts. Frequently he will describe how Jesus went up to Jerusalem to attend one feast or another, and when He does, exciting things tend to happen:

  • In John 2.13ff., Jesus goes to Jerusalem to attend the Passover and cleanses the temple.
  • In John 5, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem to observe an (unnamed) “feast of the Jews” and heals an invalid on the Sabbath.
  • In John 6, while the Passover is at hand, Jesus feeds the 5,000.
  • In John 7, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem to for the Feast of Tabernacles and begins teaching in the temple, leading to sharp arguments about who He is and where He comes from.

In this list of feasts that Jesus attends, we should also include John 10.22-23:

“At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon.”

Again, His appearance at a Jewish religious feast leads to excitement: Jesus tells the Jews who gather around Him, “I and the Father are one,” and as a result, they want to stone Him to death. But what I really want to emphasize is the part about the “Feast of Dedication”. You won’t find that feast described and commanded in the Old Testament along with Passover, Tabernacles, and Pentecost.

The Feast of Dedication came about many years later, and we know it better by a different name: Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights. It was instituted during the Maccabean revolt in 164/163 B.C. and celebrates the rededication of the temple after it had been defiled under Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire.

So John 10 tells us that Jesus was in Jerusalem, walking in the temple, during a holiday celebrating the rededication of the temple. In other words, Jesus was celebrating a religious holiday that was not commanded by the Hebrew Bible. Based on His example, I think we are on safe grounds to do the same thing today. 

I am certainly not arguing that the birth of Jesus is more important than His death or resurrection, but it is significant: it was God putting on flesh and becoming a human, and fully identifying with the trials and temptation of the human experience. It was the beginning stage of the prerequisite process that enabled Jesus to be the perfect sacrifice for our sins. It was God establishing a beachhead in the realm of Satan and beginning the frontal assault that would ultimately result in the defeat of sin and death.

And thus, it is worth celebrating. The Bible doesn’t command that we do so, but the example of Jesus certainly shows that the Bible doesn’t forbid us from doing so, either. Besides, as Christians, we should celebrate Jesus—His birth, life, teachings, miracles, death, resurrection, ascension—each and every day of the year, Christmas included.

Ultimately, I think this whole discussion falls squarely into Romans 14.1-12, where Paul talks about how Christian brothers and sisters should avoid passing judgment on one another over disputable matters.

At the end of the day, if a Christian brother or sister wants to celebrate the birth of Jesus and what it represents as a part of Christmas, you are not to pass judgment that person. And if a Christian brother or sister decides that it is inappropriate to celebrate Christmas in a religious fashion, you are not to pass judgment on that person either. In matters such as these, Paul says that we are to respect the beliefs of one another, rather than forcing our beliefs on others in a way that causes them to stumble.

Selling God Short

Being A Pessimist Realist

My wife likes to say that I am a pessimist; I argue that I am a realist. For example, when I’m watching an Arkansas Razorback football game, it doesn’t take me long to decide that we aren’t likely to win. To me, that’s not pessimism, it’s realism, based on the reality that the Razorbacks have only won 7 games over the past two combined seasons.

And I’m that way about other things too. As a minister, I’ve had ample opportunity to become very familiar with a lot of really good people, and in the process see how flawed they are. So when it comes to most people, I really don’t have very high expectations. Again, Caroline would call me a pessimist; I would argue that I’m a realist. Either way though, it’s really just an issue of semantics.

My realism/pessimism is useful in a lot of situations because it keeps me from getting my hopes up only to be disappointed by the end result. However, it’s neither helpful nor particularly faithful when it comes to my expectations of what God can do.

Which brings me to the Elf Party.

The Elf Party

A few years ago, a sweet lady at church came up with the idea of an “Elf Party” for our youth group, where our teens would play the role Santa’s elves by purchasing and wrapping gifts for the kids of a needy family. Generally, we would “adopt” a family from one of the local schools (anonymously), and our 10-15 teens would get a bunch of gifts for 3-4 kids who otherwise wouldn’t get much of a Christmas. It was great.

In addition to this, several adult members from our church would also “adopt” a child from one of the local schools on their own, and purchase gifts for them.

Well, during my study and practice of youth ministry, I have become increasingly convicted that young people need to spend a lot of time with older Christians. Developing relationships with older Christians is key ingredient to building a faith that lasts, and furthermore, serving alongside older Christians helps younger Christians to learn that service is an inherent part of the Christian life rather than an isolated youth group project.

With all that in mind, we decided that this past Christmas, we would expand the Elf Party to a church-wide event, and invite those adults who had participated on their own in the past to join in. We would all meet together, split up in groups to shop, and then come back and wrap the gifts together. Teens (and kids) working alongside adults all along the way. Also, since we were expanding our numbers, we decided to expand the number of kids we would adopt, so instead of the usual one family (of 3-4 kids) that I was used to, we adopted 26 kids (a large increase, I know).

And so we were all set. We picked a date on a Monday night, made a series of announcements about it at church, and got ready. For my part, I started worrying. Had we taken on too many kids? What would we do if we didn’t have enough people show up and volunteer to spend their money buying presents for others?

Then a winter storm came, a good bit of ice with six plus inches of snow on top (which is significant for here). Schools were closed on the Thursday and Friday before the Elf Party. Church services were cancelled on Sunday. It stayed so cold that the roads didn’t improve much—they would melt a little during the day and then refreeze at night and become hazardous again. School was cancelled again on Monday, and we decided to push the party back one day, to Tuesday night.

As Tuesday came around (and school was cancelled once again), I began to get really nervous. I received calls and texts from people who I had expected to be there who weren’t going to be able to make it because of the weather. The roads were still really bad in some places. By not having worship services on Sunday, we had missed our opportunity to push the event one last time to the whole congregation. Donations I had expected to receive in advance were minimal.

I really wasn’t sure what we were going to do when we had a dozen or so kids not get presents. I figured I would just go and pay for a bunch of stuff personally, which would have been a real concern—now that Caroline doesn’t teach and we are basically living on one salary (she has a small part-time job), there’s not a lot of extra money to go around.

And in the process of all of my worrying, I basically sold God short. I should’ve known better than to think that He would let us fail in an effort to show our love for our neighbors.

Because then Tuesday night came, and it was awesome. We filled up our 21-seat bus with people who had braved the roads to come help, and had to take several other vehicles besides. We all headed to Wal-Mart, and what a fun experience it was to bump into shopping groups from our church around every corner! We returned to the church building, and our fellowship hall was overflowing with happy, cabin fever-crazed people (this was the first time some of them had been out of their houses in days because of the storm). We spent the next hour or so in fellowship, sharing a quick meal together and then wrapping the gifts we had purchased.

And, as it turned out, we had just enough volunteers and funds to cover all of the needs. Our church family came together on an icy night and provided a Christmas for 26 kids who might not have had one otherwise.

Our Elf Party gifts filled the stage in the auditorium.

An Important Lesson for a New Year

The point of this post is not to highlight what we did, or to emphasize how amazing we are. I was proud of and thankful for my brothers and sisters who came out to help, but that’s not my focus here. My focus is on how faithful God was at a time when my faith proved to be pretty weak. When I was full of worry and doubt and could see no way that we would be able to live up to the commitment that we made, God was faithful, providing all that we needed and teaching me a helpful lesson that I will remember.

Although our Elf Party was almost a month ago, it’s fitting that I share this story with you at the beginning of a new year. Because in 2014, I am determining (or resolving, if you will) that I am not going to sell God short. I am going to make big plans, and attempt big things (doing my best, of course, to make sure that those plans and things are in accordance with His will), and let God provide results that glorify Him.

Christmas Break Project: Garage Shelves

There are a lot of do-it-yourself, handyman blogs out there, but since I am one of the least handy people on the planet, this post is a one-of-a-kind on The Doc File.

We built our house (well, we didn’t build anything, but we paid to have it built) in the summer of 2011, and although I like our house, it is a bit on the smallish side and lacks a lot of storage options. This lack of storage space manifested itself in a lot of areas, but one noticeable way was the fact that the walls of our garage were basically lined with tools, equipment, and junk. With the garage already being small, it had become very difficult to fit both of our cars inside and be able to walk around them.

Pre-shelf garage clutter.

So, I decided to take advantage of some vacation time over the holidays, and, with the help of my brother and my brother-cousin (and their tools), designed and built some shelves in my garage to cut down on the clutter.

First, we headed to Lowe’s to buy our materials (actually, this was one of three trips which was made to Lowe’s that day):

This is how you load a Jeep Wrangler with lumber.

After a few hours’ work (and a small amount of trial and error), we ended up with something surprisingly similar to what I originally had in mind:

The finished product of our labors.

An angled view which shows the workspace area.

And here is the shelf loaded with the stuff that previously was all over the floor.

The garage is now considerably less cluttered than it was, and I now feel dangerously empowered to try my hand at some other (simple) home improvement projects.

Project Summary:

  • What: Garage Shelves
  • Dimensions: 6’ tall x 11’ wide x 12” deep. Varying shelf heights with one 24” deep x 6’ long workspace area.
  • Project Time: 6 hours, counting planning, 3 trips to Lowe’s, and a lunch break. Actual work time would be closer to 3 hours.
  • Cost: Roughly $250 for wood (this could have been a little less, but we overestimated a little).

A Difficult Birth, Part 3: The Danger of Christmas

This week I’ve been discussing why the Birth of Jesus was a difficult one, and how we tend to smooth out the rough edges of the Christmas story. But ultimately, it’s a good thing for us that it was a difficult birth, because it helps us to see how to better live our difficult lives.

The first post addressed the element of scandal in Christ’s birth, and yesterday’s post focused on the discomfort of Christmas.

The Danger of Christmas

In those nice Hallmark cards it sure seems like Jesus is plenty safe, but Matthew 2 shows us the danger that was involved in this story. There we learn about the visit of the wise men and there is a lot about the wise men that we don’t know, a lot of things we commonly think of that might not have been true.

Were there three wise men? We don’t know; we often assume that there were three because there were three gifts mentioned, but the Bible doesn’t actually give us the number. Also, if you read carefully, the wise men weren’t there with Jesus right when he was born. Matthew 2.11 says “And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother…”, so by the time the wise men saw Jesus, he was no longer in the manger and was instead in a house.

The wise men were from “the east”, probably Babylon or Persia; they would have been astrologers, followers of the stars.

These men come to King Herod in Jerusalem and they ask him, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?”

And Herod is troubled by this, because he kinda thought that he was the king of the Jews, and he certainly didn’t want to have any rivals for the throne. In fact we know from history, Herod was actually a pretty terrible guy, and to protect his power, he murdered his own wife, several of his sons, and some other relatives as well. And so it’s no surprise that he wants to eliminate this baby king that had been born.

So Herod brings the chief priests and scribes together in order to learn where the Christ, the Messiah, was supposed to be born, and they point him to Micah 5.2 and say that he’s supposed to be born in Bethlehem.

Then Herod calls the wise men back, encourages them to search for Jesus, and then to return and let him know where He is when they find Him. And the wise men do find Jesus, but they’re warned in a dream not to tell Herod anything, and so they go home a different way. At the same time, an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream in Matthew 2.13 and warns him that Herod wants to kill Jesus, so in the middle of the night, Joseph scoops up his wife and infant son, and they flee to Egypt. They leave the country.

At some point, Herod realizes that the wise men aren’t coming back and that they’ve tricked him. Enraged, he decides to kill all the male children in Bethlehem and in the whole surrounding region who are 2 years of age and under, just to make sure.

And so tragedy and heartbreak enters homes all over, as mothers have their baby boys torn from their arms, fathers watch helplessly, and soldiers draw their weapons, carrying out the orders of a murderous madman.

You don’t see all this in the Christmas cards, but the birth of Jesus was a dangerous time.

Danger in Our Lives

Just like we try to smooth over the danger in the Birth of Jesus, a lot of times we try to do that in our lives as well.

To be honest, most of us don’t actually face a lot of danger in our lives. It might be different if you are in the military or serve as a policeman or fireman, but those are careers; rarely do we face danger in the world today for the cause of Christ, unless you’re a missionary (where danger can be a very real thing).

What we do face though, is the reality of living in what is called a post-Christian society. Living in a society like this doesn’t put us in the path of the same kind of life-and-death danger we talked about in conjunction with the birth of Jesus, but it does mean that Christians can face social and perhaps economic fallout for trying to live according to the teachings of the Bible and sharing those teachings with others.

If you’ve followed the Duck Dynasty saga this past week you know exactly what I’m talking about. I don’t want to get off topic here by addressing that issue in detail, but I don’t think there’s any denying that some of teachings of the Bible cause a great deal of backlash with our society today. At times in can be easy for us to feel like we get picked on just for believing what the Bible says.

But I think Christians of the first century would look at the “persecutions” we go through in our country today and kind of chuckle, because it’s nothing like what they had to deal with. At least for now, no one here is in danger of being fed to lions in the Colosseum or being beheaded and having their heads used as lanterns in the emperor’s garden.

And to those Christians, our brothers and sisters of two millennia ago, the writers of the New Testament didn’t tell them to smooth over the dangers of the Christian life:

They didn’t tell them to avoid persecution at all cost…

They didn’t tell them to fight against it…

They didn’t tell them to run to Facebook in protest…

They told them to be ready for it, to be prepared, because it was coming…

These early Christians were reminded that Jesus was persecuted and killed, and that if that happened to Him, then surely His followers could expect to face trials and persecutions as well. And the same goes for us. But if we do face trials and persecutions for the cause of Christ, that’s okay: it’s a sign that we’re doing it right.

Don’t try to avoid the dangers of the Christian life. Don’t run from the persecutions. Be prepared for them, and glorify God when they come. Be a living sacrifice for Him.

Conclusion—A Difficult Birth Indeed

The birth of Jesus—as it really was—was a difficult birth. It doesn’t really fit in a children’s story or on a Christmas card. But for us, that’s good news! It shows us how to live our difficult lives!

The scandal of Jesus’ birth reminds us that we don’t have to fear the scandal in our lives or the sin in the world. Jesus has overcome sin! He wants to take it away from you if you’ll let Him! His blood can cleanse the sin of the world, if we’ll share it!

The discomfort of Jesus’ birth reminds us that comfort is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s not God’s goal for your life. Seek to live a life that is uncomfortably devoted to God!

The danger of Jesus’ birth reminds us of the possibility—nay, the likelihood—that we’ll face trials and persecutions as we strive to follow Jesus. Don’t try to avoid them, don’t fret about them; glorify God through them.

Praise be to God for the oh-so-difficult birth of His Son!

A Difficult Birth, Part 2: The Discomfort of Christmas

In case you missed it, yesterday’s post introduced the idea of why the Birth of Jesus was a difficult one, and how we tend to smooth out the rough edges of the Christmas story. But ultimately, it’s a good thing for us that it was a difficult birth, because it helps us to see how to better live our difficult lives.

Yesterday’s post specifically addressed the element of scandal in Christ’s birth.

The Discomfort of Christmas

We know from Luke 2.1-7 that Joseph and Mary had traveled to Bethlehem because a census was being taken. Joseph had to return there because it was the city of his ancestors, and so that’s where they were when it was time for Jesus to be born.

As travelers, and especially as travelers expecting a birth, they needed a place to stay. It would have been ideal to stay with relatives, and considering that they were traveling to Joseph’s ancestral home, this is almost certainly what the young couple sought to do. 

Famously, we know that there was “no room at the inn” but it is unlikely that this is a reference to the first century equivalent to the Hilton; rather, the Greek word kataluma generally refers to a small upper room in a private dwelling that was used for showing hospitality to guests. In addition to this guest room, the main portion of the house would be divided into the living area and a separate compartment where animals might be kept, especially overnight.[1]

In the Nativity story, there was no room for Joseph and Mary to stay in their relatives’ guest room (perhaps because other family members were already there), and so they stayed in the main portion of the house instead with the host family and also likely with animals as well.

This perhaps seems nicer than being born in a barn, but make no mistake: the King of kings was born in humble circumstances, in a crowded cottage in a backwater village, surrounded by the smells of livestock. Not a comfortable place.

Discomfort in Our Lives

Just like we try to smooth over the discomfort in the Birth of Jesus, a lot of times we try to do that in our lives as well.

I believe the Bible teaches that God wants a lot of things for your life. He wants you to be saved, he wants you to holy, he wants you to be joyful (which is different than you being “happy”, but that’s a post for a different day); I don’t think that God wants you to be comfortable.

Comfort is a big part of what we want—a nice warm house, nice things, the latest technology to make life easier, relationships with our friends and families that make us feel good, nice vacations and lots of money set aside for retirement, sermons that put a smile on our face and don’t call us to sacrifice—we like comfort, but God doesn’t call us to be comfortable.

If you take the teachings of Jesus seriously, they don’t lead to a comfortable life. A fulfilling life? Yes. A purposeful life? Sure. A blessed life? Absolutely! But not a comfortable one.

Love your enemies…

Seek first the kingdom…

Care for the poor…

Preach the gospel…

Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Me…

If you take them seriously, the teachings of Jesus will turn your life upside down—they will disrupt your goals, re-arrange your priorities, and change the very lenses through which you view life.

Don’t shy away from discomfort!

Give of your means (to the church, to those in need, to charities) to the point that it hurts, that it makes you less comfortable.

Study the parts of Scripture that are difficult and unsettling.

Force yourself to be around that Christian brother or sister who drives you crazy and figure out how to love them.

Share your faith, even if—especially if— it makes you nervous and makes your heart race.

Don’t shy away from the discomfort of life.


[1] This post has been updated from its original form as I have learned more about the meaning of kataluma and the nature of first-century dwellings. See more at https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/once-more-jesus-was-not-born-in-a-stable/?fbclid=IwAR3WvFDTJw_5SSSCPMjk_T9ZDp4OrSlRC2gSjhs-o3kgGs0IhNPlsO0d6BU

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