Merry Messiahmas Everyone:
Its Christmas time. This is the annual time when every Jewish believer must face, so what I am going to do? Do I ignore all the Christmas stuff, or rather do I go ahead and get a tree and celebrate it?
Well, I am not so much going to give a sermon this morning, as I am going to invite you on my own journey through this question. You may disagree with me on many points, thats fine, I may disagree with myself sometimes. But isnt that how our own brain works, as we try to work through issues like this that seem to cross so many lines. When I tackle this one, I see a collision of Tradition, Scripture, Emotion, Family, Community, they all seemed to be touched by this question. So come with me on my little journey. Most of you have gone on your own journey in this area, maybe I will ring a few bells for you. Fa-la-la-la la-la-la
But let me first warn you, a warning my wife requested I give you. I decided to have a little fun, so I have taken a bit of comedic tone at the beginning. She said I offended her, and to be sure to warn everyone I am just trying to have a little fun. I am kind of picturing Jackie Mason, the famous Jewish comedian, trying to answer this question.
A: Did I become a Gentile
Well, we all know the inevitable questions we will get from the Jewish Community or our Jewish Family at this time of year. "So now that you are a Christian, are you going to have a tree? Do you celebrate Christmas now?" We all know what they are really asking, and what they are really expecting to see. This time of year will finally show the evidence of what they have always suspected that we have become a Gentile. They all knew it anyway, when you said you believe in Jesus, that was it, you are not a Jew anymore, you are a Gentile, presto, chango. Someone waved a cross over; you, and Wah-la.
We all know, at this time of year we show our colors. Are we Jews or Christians? No blurring of lines in December.
So which is it, Chanukah or Christmas?
We all know Jews dont dress in Green and Red?
Are we going to proudly display our lack of lights on our house as a testimony to our Jewishness?
Christmas Card or Chanukah Card or do we go for the mysterious, Seasons Greetings?
Of course, since I have come to belief and conviction that Y'shua is the Messiah, I guess it is obvious that I would suddenly want Christmas lights on my house. In fact I think I want to have one of those houses that look like they belong on the strip in Las Vegas. You know the ones I am talking about.
Tons of lights streaming back and forth across the house, with a Giant Santa Claus on my lawn, with a huge sleigh and reindeer.
Why not? I believe in Jesus now, don't I? That is what I am supposed to do, right?
And we all know what we are really waiting for don't we? Oh yeah, that huge honey roasted Ham, bring it on. Now that I believe in Jesus, I have a sudden craving for Ham, isn't it obvious?
Why is it? When the Gentiles celebrate Christmas and Easter, does it have to be with Ham? What is the connection I don't get it? The Messiah is born, and he rose from the dead, Praise God, lets have some ham.
I don't want Ham, I have never really eaten it, and frankly it grosses me out, its like this weird spongy stuff. It feels more like something to patch a tire with than to eat?
We even get it from other believers on this one; "You dont eat pork, still under the law?"
You may have a different conviction, but no, I don't believe it is still forbidden to eat pork, even for a Jewish believer. I believe it when Jesus says its not what goes into your body that defiles you but what comes out of you, out of your heart. I do believe it when Paul says in Romans 14, that he doesn't believe any food in itself is unclean and the Kingdom is God is not about eating and drinking, but peace, joy and righteousness in the Holy Spirit. I dont think my relationship with God or my conformity to the image of Messiah is going to be affected one iota by eating a honey-roasted ham.
But I don't want to eat Ham. Isn't that okay too? Maybe I should offer my Gentile Christian friends Monkey Brains? Oh, cant eat it, "under the law, I guess"
Okay, I think I have made my point? When I came to believe in Jesus, I didn't suddenly become a Gentile, and desire to immediately abandon all sense of Jewish identity, and take on all Gentile cultural traditions and living habits. I just believe that Y'shua is the Messiah. The Messiah of my people, the Jewish people, the fulfillment of the promises made to the Patriarchs and the Prophets. I have a relationship with God now, and my life has been transformed.
B: But isnt Christmas Pagan?
But should I as a Jewish Believer celebrate Christmas?
Sure, the birth of the Messiah probably didn't happen on December 25th. Its probably just a traditional day. But is that a reason I shouldnt celebrate it. Lets face it thats not really the issue here. We are not really affirming the Biblical accuracy of his day of birth by celebrating Christmas. We are just taking this opportunity to meditate on and celebrate his birth. Besides as Messianic Jews can we really argue against all Tradition as bad to incorporate into our faith?
And sure its probably the re-working of some pagan holiday. But so what? The sacrificial system was pagan too, and God took it, and redeemed and filled it with new meaning. Not only that but He took an existing treaty form, the suzaraneity treaty form and adapted it to create the Mosaic Covenant between himself and the people of Israel. So if God can take the pagan and make it holy in the Scripture, we shouldnt have a big problem with it either.
Jewish Antipathy to Christmas
Now we can certainly understand the Jewish communitys reservations towards celebrating the birth of a Messiah they dont believe has come. But not only do they reject it on theological grounds, but our un-Jesusness has become our single most identifying factor. In some cases the only similarity all other Jews have, that we dont have, is they dont believe in Jesus.
Look at this add that ran this week in the LA Jewish paper in response to our evangelistic campaign:
We have finally galvanized the Jewish Community to agree on something. Jesus is not divinity. In their desperation to find something they all agreed on, that Jewish believers don't, they took this stance. It would have been nice for them to add in the fact that a number of those Jewish people probably dont believe in God at all much less anything divine, but no luck.
Now comes Christmas time, when our entire society goes absolutely nuts for an entire month over Christmas, caroling songs of the incarnation, putting Jesus stuff everywhere, being bombarded with music, and Christmas cards. Christmas oriented programming all over the TV channels. Whole cities decorated up, its everywhere, you cant get away from it.
Its almost in the face of a Jewish Community which not only excludes itself from the celebration but also feels excluded from it. It makes sense that we would want to make a bigger deal out of Chanukah; its all we got. An Israeli friend of ours who lives here now was shocked by how big of a deal they made out of Chanukah here. She figured it was a backlash to Christmas. But the Jewish community is understandably antagonistic to all the Christmas stuff. Look at the thorn many Jewish people are trying to put in the sides of public schools about just singing Christmas songs.
But does our identification with the Jewish community mean we need to inherit this identification, this antagonism towards Christmas?
Sure all the Santa stuff, and the over the top materialism of the season, we can still ignore. But are we to be annoyed that people are celebrating the Birth of the Messiah?
Shouldn't we rather rejoice? Shouldn't we be amazed at people talking about it? Shouldn't our hearts skip as we hear traditional hymns, rich in scripture, as praises of God stream across the sound system of secular stores, and businesses?
Just this past weekend I was in my brothers home. He and his angry ex-catholic wife have such an animosity towards God, that he would not let me even be alone with my niece for the first five years of her life, for fear I met tell her about my faith. It all happened because my brother caught me listening to Scripture music tape while I was baby sitting my two week old niece.
But yet this weekend, they had a CD in, playing various Xmas songs.
Here in their house I heard:
Joy to the World, the Lord is come, let earth receive her king, let every heart prepare him room and heaven and nature sing
He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.
I was amazed. I remember looking over at my sister in law singing, as she sang the words from another song, God and sinners reconciled. She caught my eye and embarrassingly said, I learned them in Catholic School.
This maybe my nieces only chance to hear truth in that house. Should I not rejoice, should I not embrace these songs?
Ceil Rosen, the wife of Moishe Rosen, was first impacted by God through Christmas songs she sang in a Choir in High School, it is what eventually led her to the Lord. In trying to prove his wife wrong, Moishe too became a believer, and later started Jews for Jesus. So in a sense, Jews for Jesus is a result of Christmas Carols.
But still, I just feel funny. I feel a bit funny singing the songs, like I am not supposed to be singing them. I know, it doesnt make sense.
Our secret antipathy to the church
I had to be sure to be honest with myself here. Does some of my hesitancy to be involved or endorse Christmas come from not only not wanting to be identified as a Gentile, but not wanting to identify with the Church?
I really appreciate something David Brickner, the head of Jews for Jesus, wrote recently. I think he is seeing an increasingly negative view of the larger body of Messiah, a devaluing of the Church universal among believers. He writes:
No one can deny that terrible atrocities have been committed in the name of Jesus and seemingly sanctioned by the Church. Nor can we deny more contemporary scandals of greed and immorality-even pedophile priests whose superiors apparently protected them from the law. And politics? There is no denying that some clergymen use their pulpits as a platform, not even realizing that in their desire to be relevant they are spouting anti-Semitic rhetoric crafted by terrorist propagandists.
Yet none of these represents the Church I know. The world cannot discern between man-made religion and the true Church-But we need to remember the difference.
The real Church is not a corrupted institution; it is a community of redeemed people who love the Lord and one another. The real Church is not a bunch of blood thirsty anti-Semites; it is the Body of Messiah, Jesus representatives on the earth. The real Church is not a collection of superstitious simpletons, but of people who study and submit to the teaching of the Scriptures. The real Church is the people who stoop to serve others, following the example of Yshua (Jesus), the true leader of the Church. Those who truly represent Jesus love him-and love His kinsmen according to the flesh, the Jewish people.
This is the Church I know. This is the Church that reached out to me when I was wandering far from God- the Church that welcomed me in from the cold to be warmed by the love of Christ and the fellowship of His saints. Its the community that showed me that friendship with God is so much more satisfying than friendship with the world. This is the body of believers who taught me to love and study Gods Word, to practice and pursue a life of prayer, to cultivate a longing to worship and praise the Lord of heaven, to give, to serve others, to spread the good news to all people.
All this to say, I dont think I want to take this opportunity at Christmas time, to distance myself from the Body of Messiah. This is not a time to stand up and say I am Jewish believer, I am not one of you. Because we are one of them, and we should embrace our family.
But you know, I even struggle with the Scriptures themselves I find read at this time. They makes me feel a bit funny. Something about the Birth Narrative of Jesus always seems to hit my Goyish button. Why? Are they really so un-Jewish? I wondered, is the text really so different from the Tenach? I want to take you through a brief overview of what I found that put my mind to rest. In fact I have come to the conclusion that the first two chapters of Luke bear some of the most resemblance to Tenach, the Old Testament of perhaps the whole New Testament
For instance, when I first read the birth narrative in Luke which we just heard earlier, I felt like I heard the sound of the little drummer boy in my ears, brumbumbum bum. But the more I read the Scripture the more I realized that there were many birth narratives throughout the Bible and this actually bore a lot of similarity to some of them.
Moses has a birth narrative, Isaac, Jacob, Samson had birth narratives, even the phrase from Luke 2:52, Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man, also comes at the end of Samuels birth narrative. Its pretty much the same exact phrase. Luke may have even borrowed from that birth narrative to shape his own.
Even the classic naming of the child, "and you shall call his name Y'shua. Yshua means the Lords salvation or He saves, you know name him he saves for he will save his people from his sin. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, is told to name his son, John or Yohanan, Gods grace. It brings to my memory, Hagar, Sarahs maid servant being commanded by the Angel of the Lord, "You will have a son, and you shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has seen your misery." Or with Abraham, your wife will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. Or the classic from Is 7:14, you will call him Emmanuel.
I used to feel the angelic appearances were a bit funky. You know with the visitation to Zechariah, and to Mary and Joseph, then to the Shepherds, then the heavenly host appearing. But that too is rich in precedent throughout the Tenach. Think of the angels who came to Abraham to announce the birth of his child to him. Sarah is laughing is actually very similar to Zechariahs refusal to believe Gabriel promise to him about John. But when God was doing something big, Angelic encounters are all over the place, from Jacobs ladder to Daniels lion den, and everywhere in between like David, Joshua, Ezekiel, and Gideon to name a few.
Even the host of Heaven appearing. I think of the stories of Elijah and Elisha, with the host of heaven taking Elijah up or surrounding the enemy. Interesting even the shepherds overhearing the Angelic Praise, Glory to God in the Highest. The other recorded mortal who heard angelic praise was Isaiah in the throne room; Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is full of his
This is not to mention all the references from the Law, the Temple, and promises of the Tenach you see in the birth narratives. Here in the verses we read, we hear Yshuas parents referring to obeying the Law three times. The circumcision, the offering for the first born, the time of purification. And all of this interaction with Simeon and Anna happens at the Temple where they are making an offering. Zechariah, the priest, gets his vision when making the incense offering at the temple.
In the first two chapters of Luke, there are numerous references to the promises to David, and to the City of David, fulfilling the promise to Abraham. Even the careful lineage of the Messiah in Luke 3 and Matthew 1 harken us back to the Chronologies of the Tenach. And many today actually have the nerve to question them today, when we can barely comprehend how significant they would have been to the initial readers. Even Zechariahs priestly division of Abijah is specifically referred to in Luke 1 as if it would mean something to the reader.
Also I want you to think of the Songs of Praise here in the first two chapters of Luke, first Mary, the mother of Jesuss song, then Zechariahs song at Johns birth, the Angels and Simeons songs. This is also classic form. Think of the Songs of Moses, and of Deborah, not to mention David and the entire book of Psalms for which they clearly ring a bell. Marys song has a lot of similarity to the song of Hannah related to Samuels birth. It is classic form to sing songs of praise to God when he does something big, and what could be bigger than the birth of the Messiah.
This is actually the exact kind of text we should expect to see. This is the big one, the birth of the Messiah who will bring in the New Covenant, you better believe it is biblically consistent to have a birth Narrative, an angelic announcement, and big psalms of Praise.
It is actually really exciting to try and place yourself in the midst of this very Jewish community of the first Century in Israel. Look at the remarkable phrase in 2:38 at the end of the account of Anna, she sent to tell all who were looking forward to the redemption of Israel. So you see, there was then a faithful remnant looking and waiting for God to fulfill his promises.
Look at Anna, the prophetess of the tribe of Asher, who spent years and years in the temple, worshipping, praying and fasting unto the Lord. It says she never left the temple but worshipped night and day. She sees the fulfillment of her longing in the baby. It says she then runs and tells all in Jerusalem, who are waiting for the redemption of Israel.
John the Baptists parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, are part of this community. They are described in Luke 1 as being upright in the sight of God. Just look at his song of praise to God, rich in Scripture and promise of God. You see the same faithfulness and devotion to God in Mary and Joseph. Again, now think of all the people Anna ran and told, this faithful community, this remnant, drenched in Scripture, fervent in prayer, living upright, worship filled lives, pleasing in the sight of God.
Look at Simeon as an example, described as righteous and devout. The Holy Spirit is upon him; he has a revelation from God. He is described as waiting for the Consolation of Israel. A very interesting phrase, considering that the Hebrew word for consolation, Nachum, bears a lot of similarity to One of the rabbinic names for the Messiah, Menachum, perhaps the consolation of Israel.
He holds up the Baby, for he has seen God's ultimate salvation, his y'shua, his deliverance, and he sings a song of praise. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.
Here he both quotes Scripture and grabs Old Testament imagery. You see the Abrahamic promise here of his seed to be a blessing to the peoples. I also here Is 49:6 ringing in my ears, where it says:
It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.
The Messiah the ultimate Glory of Israel, who will shine unto the Nations, the Goyim, the Gentiles, as he does today.
This fervent faithful Jewish Community of the 1st century understood that this long awaited promise, this Messiah was to be a blessing to all peoples.
And so isnt it appropriate today, that the nations, the Goyim, should be celebrating the birth of our Messiah? It is actually what we should see.
Listen, I am not advocating that every Jewish Believer needs to run out and get Christmas trees and give presents on Christmas, but I am advocating freedom. I am stressing their is nothing wrong in celebrating Christmas as Jewish Believers.
But there is also nothing wrong with not celebrating Christmas. Let us not sit in judgement of one another. I have no problem with those Jewish believers who feel wrong about celebrating Christmas. Who knows if the Lord has spoken to them about it, there is nothing unbiblical about not celebrating it. Perhaps your relationship with your Jewish family would be hurt by it. Maybe you really feel you are facing an uphill battle in having your kids identify as Jews, and you want them to see their winter celebration as Chanukah and not Christmas. You know the power of presents, and you want them looking forward to Chanukah and not Christmas, that is perfectly reasonable.
So what is the bottom line? Freedom, freedom to celebrate and freedom not to celebrate. But there are things we are not free to do? We are not free to judge our brothers; we are not free to create stumbling blocks for another. We are not free to harbor ill in our heart.
Test yourselves; what is your attitude? Do you feel disdain for the church? Are you secretly self-righteous over your decision, whatever it may be? Why are you making the decision you are? Do you feel peace about it? What is your attitude towards others? Are you still able to rejoice over the coming of the Messiah, and the world's celebration of it?
Whatever you decide to do this Christmas, I would encourage you to let yourself rejoice when God is praised and glorified. When his Scriptures are proclaimed, when people who have not given a thought to God for the past 12 months are suddenly thinking about him.
To let yourself smile when so many in deeply God-forsaking lives, like Balaam's donkey open their mouths in praise of God.
And may we take this opportunity as well, to meditate on the incredible fulfillment of the promises made to our forefathers, when God brought his Messiah into the world, "a light unto the Gentiles, and a glory to his people Israel."