trains on a make-believe track
Carry toy loads to the station and back.
Miniature deer on make-believe snow
Pull toy sleighs as in circles they go.
Miniature trees dot a make-believe hill
While toy stars twinkle all peaceful and still.
Is the happiness false? Is the joy untrue?
Are the peace and love all make-believe too?
In only a moment the carols will start;
Save me, O God, from a miniature heart.
An artificial Christmas, or a genuine Christmas: how can you tell them apart? I'm getting used to artificial Christmas trees. It took some doing, but I've made the adjustment. I no longer have problems with artificial Christmas trees. I have no problem with artificial wreaths; I have no problem with artificial snow. As a matter of fact, I prefer it to the genuine article. And I read somewhere that artificial mistletoe is just as effective as the real thing.
But I have some problem with an artificial Christmas. There are three things that make Christmas artificial and three things that make it genuine.
Christmas is artificial if it is a ritualistic Christmas. It is artificial if we are only doing our spiritual calisthentics, if we are only going through the motions, if we are giving out of duty and if we are going to church out of habit, and if we are singing, not from our hearts, but only from our throats. Anyone who has taken voice lessons should have learned at least one basic principle. That is that one must support the voice on a column of air that comes not from the throat or even the chest, but from deep within. I've learned something else. Spiritually, we must support our songs on something that comes from deep within. How many people who are singing, "Silent night, holy night. . . Christ the Savior is born," neither acknowledge themselves as sinners or Christ as their Savior?
How many people are singing, "O Come All Ye Faithful," and they have no faith at all? So a ritualistic Christmas is an artificial Christmas.
A materialistic Christmas is also an artificial Christmas. Some of my friends preach a lot on Communism and they think I ought to preach on Communism. But I have never met anybody in my ministry that I thought was in danger of becoming a Communist. I have met people that I thought were in danger of becoming materialists. So I prefer to preach on materialism-- that's the threat we face. Are we, this year, more concerned about Bethlehem Steel than we are about the Bethlehem star? It interests me that every year the news reporters on television interview the merchants and ask, "How is business this Christmas? Is there as much traffic as usual? Are sales up or down?" I've never heard them interview a clergyman and ask whether attendance at church is up or down or whether the people are singing the carols with more gusto this year than before.
Christmas has become so materialistic that some people want to leave Santa Claus out of it altogether. They think it wasn't the Grinch that stole Christmas, but Santa Claus. I read the other day there are three stages in a mans life. First, there is the stage where he believes in Santa Claus. Then there is the stage where he doesnt believe in Santa Claus. Finally there is the stage where he is Santa Claus. I heard about a man whose wife kept nagging him to put in a new concrete patio. He said, "We don't need it, and we can't afford it." She kept insisting and he kept insisting. He talked to his next-door neighbor about it. He said, "I'm just not going to give in." One day, to his astonishment, the neighbor looked out the window, and there was the concrete truck backing up into the back yard. He went over and there stood his neighbor watching them pour that concrete patio. He was all smiles. The neighbor said, "Well, I didn't think you'd do it, and I certainly don't understand what you've got to smile about." The man said, "All her credit cards are in that concrete!"
It's not only in this country that we face a problem of a materialistic Christmas. In England, they have this custom: young people go around the homes and sing carols, not just on one night, but on many nights before Christmas. After they sing carols, they ring the doorbell. When you come to the door, they hold out their hands and say, "Our Christmas, Sir." You're supposed to give them money. Sometimes the first ones arrive as early as the middle of November!
There's a third characteristic of an artificial Christmas. That is, its a pleasuristic Christmas. Bob Shannon made that word up. You would think with all the words there are in the dictionary, we wouldn't have to make them up, wouldnt you? But I just couldnt find anything that quite fit, so I just used Bob's. But you understand what I mean.
Ritualistic, materialistic, pleasuristic. Surely Christmas is a little bit more than just decking the halls with boughs of holly. Surely it is the season to have some emotion stirring in our breast other than simply to be jolly. The watchword is not "Ho, ho, ho!" It is "Behold, behold, look, see, I bring you good tidings of great joy." You know and I know that there are activities and deeds that are condoned and excused at Christmastime that would never be condoned and excused at any other time of the year. People say, "Oh, well, its Christmas." They expect people to go into all the kinds of excesses that otherwise are looked down upon, and it becomes pleasuristic.
Thats an artificial Christmas. I read about a man who went on a trip to Europe, and nothing satisfied him. The cathedrals were musty and dim; the castles were drafty and damp. He said everything needed paint. Finally they got to Switzerland. They were standing on an overlook, looking out at the magnificent Alps. A beautiful sylvan valley lay in between those snowcapped mountains that reared up against the blue sky. His traveling companion said, "Now, you can't complain about Switzerland, can you?" The man said, "I dont know. Take away the scenery and what have you got?" Of an artificial Christmas one may say, "Take away the scenery and what have you got?"
A genuine Christmas may have the very same scenery; but take away the scenery, and I'll tell you what youve got. First you have something that enriches love. There are people who give to others at Christmas who never give at any other time of the year. There are organizations that are not necessarily benevolent in nature that become benevolent at Christmas. Unabashedly, the Chamber of Commerce is dedicated to commerce. That's what it's for. It's not intended to be a charitable organization. It's dedicated to business, and making it bigger and better. But at Christmas, in many cities, the Chamber of Commerce is gathering food to put in baskets to take to the poor.
Christmas has a way of doing that. Even hearts that have become hard are softened, and hearts that have become cold are warmed. Christmas enriches love. It's a time to give; not simply to give things, but also to give Christmas itself. We have sometimes referred to observing Christmas as "keeping Christmas." Have you ever heard that term used for its observance? Yet, in the ultimate sense, Christmas can never be kept. Always it must be given away. So along with all the other things we are giving this year, let us give Christmas. Christmas itself. It's rather significant, and appropriate, that the first radio broadcast, in 1906,was a Christmas celebration. It was a Canadian, Reginald Aubrey Kessendon, who had been experimenting with voice transmissions by wireless. On Christmas, he broadcast a wireless message to the ships at sea. Sailors in their vessels were startled to hear coming over the instruments not just a code, but a human voice. They heard a violinist play, "O Holy Night." They heard a man read from the Bible from Luke chapter 2. There's a poetic significance in that, for Christmas is always a message to be heard and a message to be told; a message to be given to the world.
A genuine Christmas enriches love. A genuine Christmas nourishes faith. Every time I hear that beautiful song, "Do You Hear What I Hear," another word comes to my mind. A similar sounding word, "fear." Sometime I would like to sing instead of "Do You Hear What I Hear?" "Do You Fear What I Fear?" For fear stalks the world, and faith is the antidote to fear. The shepherds had a message to believe. We too have a message to believe. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. One of the most magnificent cathedrals in the world is the twin-spired cathedral in Cologne, Germany. It is interesting for more than its architecture. Inside the cathedral there is a magnificent golden box. The gullible believe that in that golden box are the bones of the Wise-men. I don't know whether that's faith or superstition. I don't have much confidence that the bones of the Wise-men are there. But what's important is not the bones of the Wise-men, but the faith that they had. That faith that we can have in all our churches, be they great cathedrals or modest chapels or something in between. A faith that we can have not only in our places of worship, but in our lives. A genuine Christmas nourishes faith.
A genuine Christmas strengthens hope. A minister one year put in his church newsletter this announcement. It was a headline. It said, "An Important Announcement Will Be Made Next Sunday. An announcement that will greatly affect the future of this church." Well, everybody came. They thought he was going to resign. He announced. "Unto you is born this day a Savior." That was one way of getting their attention, but he really shouldn't have got their hopes up like that. Of course, Christmas does get our hope up, in another way, doesn't it?
It came to me a few days ago that one of the most beloved Christmas songs is one that is very little understood because the tune masks the meaning. "God rest ye, merry gentlemen," we sing. I want to go through that a little more slowly today that you may catch something of the impact of it, because it has an enormous impact.
"God rest ye merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay.
Remember, Christ our Savior
Was born on Christmas Day.
To save us all from Satans power
When we were gone astray
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy."
Now look at that a little more closely. "God rest ye." That's what we want. "Let nothing you dismay." What dismays you today? What brings you anxiety? Questions of health, questions of economics, family situations, the world at large--what is it that makes you dismayed today? "Let nothing you dismay. Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day. To save us all." You, me, the folks down the road, the people across the street, the people across the field. "From Satan's power." Only then, when you understand this, do they become tidings of comfort and joy. So your Christmas will be genuine if you think of Satan's power. What an awful thing to suggest at Christmastime. Your Christmas will be genuine if you think of Satan's power and Christ's victory over it. It will be genuine if you think of death and how Christ was victorious over it. That's what makes it genuine.
I have seen some very stunning black and white photographs, but a picture that was only black or only white would be nothing. Only when the black and white come together do you see the beautiful picture. Only when the blackness of our world and the beautiful radiant whiteness of God's love are seen together do we get the picture of Christmas. I have to give you the black as the background so that you may see the picture more clearly, so it may stand out for you in finer focus and in starker detail.
So the bad news and the good news always go together, not only in the jokes we tell, but also in the gospel we believe. Hope--that's what the world must have. Hope. Despair--thats what breaks mens hearts, and hope is the heart of our Christmas.
That night when shepherds heard the song of
hosts angelic chairing near
A deaf man lay in slumber's spell, and dreamed
that he could hear.
That night when in the cattle stall slept mother
and child in humble fold
A cripple turned his twisted limbs and dreamed
that he was whole.
That night when o'er the newborn babe a
tender mother rose to lean,
A loathsome leper smiled in sleep and
dreamed that he was clean.
That night when to the mother's breast
the little king was held secure
A harlot slept a happy sleep and dreamed
that she was pure.
That night when in a manger lay the Holy
One who came to save
A man turned in the sleep of death and
dreamed there was no grave.
These are His gifts to us: hope, faith, love. What shall be our gift to Him?
What shall I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I'd give Him a lamb.
If I were a wiseman, I'd do my part,
What shall I give Him?
Give Him my heart.