A Second Christmas

Posted: January 5, 2012 by Todd in Sermons
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Every year, around Halloween, I hear people express their utter shock and amazement that Christmas decorations are already out at such and such store.  They are soooo surprised.  I, too, have indulged in this outrage of surprise.  It happens every year, but we feign dismay annually whenever the stores shamelessly trot out their Christmas gear before the psychologically acceptable date, which we all know, according to the Scripture, is the day after Thanksgiving.  At midnight.  If you’re nodding your heads, you’re not going to like this morning’s sermon, I’m afraid.

I’ve discovered, through a deep textual analysis of this morning’s Scripture, a fact that for the last two millennia has gone unnoticed by all the Biblical scholars and theologians of the Christian tradition.  Do you wanna know what it is?  I’ll tell you what it is.   There are really two Christmases in Scripture.  That is, there are two incarnations of the Son into the world.  And so, I think stores ought to break out their Christmas gear much earlier.  There aren’t many holidays in the summer, maybe the Second Christmas would catch on in July.  I think there is even some precedence for this – I remember going to Huntsville Stars games growing up on “Christmas in July” night, where Santa Claus would visit Joe Davis Stadium in the summer, giving the first 250 kids a free baseball or bat.  Perhaps that would be a good time to add this new religious holiday to the calendar.  And when you add in the lead up time to Second Christmas, you should see stores start putting out their Second Christmas stuff in April (?).  Perhaps the stores could make the day after Easter the equivalent of Black Friday.  Starting at midnight, of course.  Manic Monday we could call it. [more…]

Okay, enough hype.  See if you can spot this “Second Christmas” as I read this morning’s passage.

A reading from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the churches in the region of Galatia:

Galatians 4:4-7

This is the Word of God for the People of God.

Thanks be to God.

Did you hear it?  Did you catch the “Second Christmas” there?  In fact, Paul mentions both Christmases in the passage.  And by Christmas, I mean when Jesus emerges in our world.  The first Christmas Paul alludes to when he says, “God sent his Son, born of a woman…”[1]  The Second Christmas is a little harder to spot – its discovery, I think, will be my enduring contribution to the Christian tradition — and perhaps the economy as well, we’ll see…  But here it is, Paul says, “because you are children [of God], God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts.”[2] [more…]

Perhaps you thought the manger was a bad way to come into the world.  Well, the hearts of men and women are even more disgusting.  And again, in this low place, is where Jesus shows up.

I want to give you a picture of the struggle Paul was involved in as he wrote this letter and suggested this Second Christmas.  Like most struggles of the church – ancient and modern – it was a struggle over who and how to include a group within the faith – and in this case, the question is about Gentiles. Gentiles include anyone who isn’t Jewish.  Paul founded these Gentile churches in the middle of modern day Turkey.  He taught them that they could be reconciled to God through the faith of Jesus Christ.  Works of the law were not required for Gentiles to be reconciled with God.  Ironically, in this letter Paul says that gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit, but Paul’s epistle isn’t exactly know for showing us his warm and fuzzy side.  Paul is writing his letter to the Galatian churches because other “so-called”[3] leaders (Paul’s phrase, not mine) had visited them and successfully convinced many male followers to become circumcised.   The Galatian Gentiles started to observe the 613 laws of the Torah.  This was necessary to be included in the faith according to these teachers. Paul’s main purpose in writing the letter to the Galatians was to “unteach” what the “so-called” leaders had taught them about the law.  Have you ever had to unteach something?  It is one of the hardest kinds of teaching to do.  Paul’s challenge was compounded since these “so-called” teachers weren’t wandering no-names.  No, they came from Jerusalem with authority and blessing from the Apostle Peter and James, the brother of Jesus.  So in his letter, Paul pulls out the heavy intellectual artillery.

In this morning’s passage, we pick up in the middle of Paul’s argument.  Paul is saying that Jesus achieves redemption at two levels – for all humanity, Jesus – born of a woman.  And for Jews, Jesus – born under the law.

Paul suggests that at both levels this redemption happens through the Second Christmas.[4]  Now, he doesn’t use that exact phrase, Second Christmas, but says we’re no longer slaves because of the Spirit of the Son is in our hearts.  This Spirit of the Son within us is what restores us to right relationship with God, makes us children of God[5]and heirs to the abundant life.

This Spirit cries out, “Abba!  // Father![6]  Calling God “Abba” was unheard of in the Jewish tradition before Jesus used this Aramaic word.[7]  It was like calling God, “Daddy.” It showed Jesus’s utter devotion and familiarity with God.  These are the words Jesus utters in his heart-wrenching prayer in Gethsemane days before he’s lynched by the Roman Empire.  The conventional priestly wisdom was that God was unapproachable, wholly other, God’s name was unspeakable and to call God such an informal, everyday name was offensive, perhaps blasphemous.

We too can be the kind of people who cry out, “Abba!  Father!”[8] If we internalize the essence of who Jesus was, the sort of life he lived, and seek to live that out in our own bodies, in our own contexts.  [The Spirit of the Son in our hearts] is [our inheritance] [as adopted children of God.]

Now, we make such a big deal about the first Christmas – these are all first Christmas decorations that are still up.  We’ll be taking them down THIS SATURDAY at 9:00 am, I hope you can join us, because I don’t want us to think that this second Christmas is any less important.  But that’s a real possibility.  You see, this Second Christmas Scripture falls in the lectionary on the Sunday after Christmas – perhaps the lowest, certainly one of the lowest, Sundays of the liturgical year.[9]  Attendance is down.  I’m not gunna name names here, but some churches that have two services combine into one and cancel Sunday School.  We’ve just experienced the big lead up to the first Christmas.  Choirs are given the [week off after the vocal workout of Advent], not ours, of course, they understand the importance of the Second Christmas.  The pastor takes his or her vacation and the church is forced to listen to the second string.  Sorry about that…  This year, it is even worse because Sunday falls on New Year’s Day.    Now, I don’t know, but it may be that even some of you who are here were up late last night bringing in the New Year with a different kind of spirit.  Knowing that this was a “low Sunday,” out of desperation, I was willing to bribe a youth to bring her New Year’s Eve party to church after staying up all night.   I promised her that I would work a single word of her choosing into my sermon.  And so, now, I’ve got to read this – acetylcholinesterase[10], there it is Melissa.  You can ask her what it means.  That’s the sort of thing you can get away with on a “low” Sunday.   Since it’s such a “low” Sunday; since I made the Second Christmas up, you might be tempted to think that it isn’t as important as the first Christmas.    There’s a podcasting pastor who often says “you shouldn’t let your Sunday mornings get in the way of your Saturday nights.”[11]  And I think that’s especially true on this low Sunday after a high Saturday night known for parties.  I’m feeling a little like Paul – that I’ve got to “unteach” you people, against the force of the first Christmas industrial complex.

So, let me unteach you this – our task on the Second Christmas is to let the Spirit of the Son take over our hearts and minds.  To do this, we’ve got to study the life of Christ to understand what the Spirit of the Son is like.  We can’t assume that our idealized version of a human is who Jesus is.  Too often, we’re following Jesus made in our image, a cultural Jesus.  But Jesus is revealed in the gospels.

I think sometimes we hear the word Spirit in a church setting and immediately default to something mystical and intangible.  But consider the way you may often use the word in other contexts, such as the “spirit of the season” or the “spirit of America.”  The spirit is the essence of something.  Who Jesus was should be written on our hearts.  And [the clearest record we have of this is the Gospels] that recount Jesus’s life – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  This is how we are adopted as children of God.  This is how we become heirs to an abundant life.

Conveniently, New Year’s Day is the perfect companion for the Second Christmas.  This is the time of year people read and think about making changes to their life and coming up with annual resolutions.  Millions of us come up with New Year’s resolutions like, “lose weight” or “exercise more.”  But, psychologists tell us, resolutions like “lose weight,” are poor motivators to change [because they are too vague.]  Those who reach their goals, tend to make specific goals.  They commit to eating from a set meal plan or attend support groups at a particular time and place.  Their goals are specific calls to action and not wishy-washy notions of who they would like to be.

If this is often a problem with resolutions, I think it is even more of one with church teachings.  Too often, the church gives vague suggestions of how we can make our lives more like that of Jesus.  It isn’t effective and doesn’t utilize what we know from the behavioral sciences.  And more importantly, the Incarnation is a specific sort of thing.  God doesn’t come to us “in general,” but embodies a first century Jew – Jesus of Nazareth.  Again, God seeks specificity by entering not human hearts at large, but my heart and yours.  And so, I don’t want to leave you with a general suggestion.  But rather charge you with a specific, measurable goal that will help the Spirit of the Son take over your heart.  I know of no better way to do this than a careful and thorough reading of the Gospels.  This will help us make the faith of Jesus Christ our own.  It will help us cry out “Abba!  Father!”  And so, will you celebrate this Second Christmas with me by taking on a New Year’s Resolution for 2012?  Make the picture of who Jesus Christ was and is clearer in your heart and mind by reading one of the Gospels.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve never read it or you’ve read it a hundred times.  Read a gospel with an eye toward taking the spirit of who Jesus was and cultivating that same spirit in your life.  Many of our youth are assigned books to read during the summer and if they’re like me, during those summers, they pick the shortest book.  So, here’s a clue, if you’re not a reader, Mark is the shortest.  In addition to creating specific goals, psychologists also tell us that goals without deadlines are less likely to be accomplished.  So, do this by the end of the month.  [The gospel you choose] may give you more questions than answers, but (?) starting next week, Pastor Bryan begins his series on “Questions of a Thinking Church,” so he can clear all those up.  Your gospel may trouble you more than you expect.  You may not sleep better at night.  But you might find that the concept of a “low Sunday” no longer makes sense when your heart cries, “Abba!  Father!”  You might learn that it’s in the low places of the world that Incarnation happens.  You might find that your heart is the site of a second manger and that your very life gives birth to a Second Christmas.

Will you pray with me?

Lord, we confess that we like it when Jesus does the work for us.  Jesus does the hard work of coming into the world, of living a faithful life in the midst of all the pressures and persecutors around him.  We don’t mind hearing the story of Christmas and of Jesus’s life.  But when Jesus tries to enter our lives, that’s when we get uncomfortable.  Lord, help us to let our hearts, our minds, our very lives be the site of a Second Christmas.  Forgive us when we are satisfied with merely hearing the Christian story and resist living it.  Call us forth into more faithful obedience until our entire world gives witness to the Incarnation – that you are here among us and within us.  Amen.


[1] (Galatians 4:4b) Please show “God sent his Son, born of a woman” on screen

[2] (Galatians 4:6a) Please show, including my parenthetical addition for clarification – “because you are children [of God], God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts” on screen

[3] Galatians 2:6

[4] Show Galatians 4:6 (full verse).  Keep up until next slide.

[5] Show Galatians 4:7 (full verse).  Keep up until next slide (coming quickly).

[6] Show, “Abba!  Father!”  on screen until note to take down.

[7] MacCulloch, Diarmaid (2010-02-25). Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (p. 81). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.

[8] Take down “Abba!  Father!” slide.

[9] Bartlett, David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown; David L. Bartlett; Barbara Brown Taylor (2011-05-31). Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1, Advent through Transfiguration (Kindle Location 5803). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

[10] Show word on screen ONLY if I do this part.  Take down relatively quickly.

[11] Doug Pagitt Radio Show


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