Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla Jr.
Text: Matthew 3:8
Old Testament: Isaiah 11:1-10
New Testament: Matthew 3:1-12
For 1,800 years, Christians associated Christ’s Second Coming with Christmas. The Season of Advent was a month of personal preparation for Christ’s return. Advent was not for Christmas parties. Christmas party-ing was reserved for the twelve days of Christmas that began Christmas Day.
Advent was for repentance. Biblical prophecies about the Lord’s return to earth described His Second Coming as a time of tribulation and judgment. In Matthew 24:41-42, Jesus describes a separation of the earth’s people will occur when He returns. “Two men will be in the field. One is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill. One is taken into the kingdom and the other is left.”
Reverend Michael Wiggleworth’s poem you heard last week contains imagery depicting that time of God’s judgment. His poem was titled, The Day of Doom. Doom is not a word we associate with Advent, or Christmas.
How Christmas become disconnected from Christ’s return to judge the world, and Advent get disconnected from repentance? After all, Matthew 4:17 describes Jesus’ preaching being about repentance. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
Repentance is one of the key themes in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s the root from which Jesus’ salvation story bears fruit. Without repentance, Christ’s birth, His life, His death, His resurrection, and His Second Coming, are meaningless.
Christ was born to inspire us to repent. Before God’s judgment, we are to repent. Christ’s birth revealed to us God’s judgment is tempered by His mercy. Without humble repentance, Christ’s return will be terrifying. So how and why did we separate repentance from this season?
The loss of repentance during Advent began in America. Its origin lies in the Christian piety of several Anglicans from New York City. They were disgusted by what Christmas had become. Christmas revelry was a carnival of home invasions, drunkenness, and carnal liberty.
The Church of England promoted Christmas revelry in spite of Scottish Presbyterian and English Puritan bans against Christmas. But the Anglicans in New York were dismayed by the Christmas carnival.
Across from the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street today lies a 300 year-old Anglican sanctuary – Trinity Church. John Pintard was a member of this congregation after the American Revolution. He was a wealthy merchant and philanthropist. Pintard was a victim of annual home invasions by New York’s street people at Christmas. England’s Christmas had spread to New York city.
Pintard empathized with the poor and sought help from other members of New York’s elite to ease their poverty. No amount of philanthropic relief changed New York’s culture of home invasions at Christmas.
At the same time, New England’s colonial culture was dominated by Puritan warnings to repent during the Season of Advent, before the Lord’s Second Coming. New York’s poor saw little hope in their future. They wanted immediate gratification before the Lord’s judgment arrived. They invaded homes demanding Christmas gifts and drink to ease their poverty.
Pintard sensed a problem lay in the overemphasis of fear brought by Presbyterian and Puritan calls to repentance at Christmas. In one of the greatest religious media campaigns, Pintard enlisted Washington Irving and another friend, Clement Moore. He knew both men from the New York Historical Society that Pintard funded. All three men were members of the Society.
This trio envisioned Christmas without repentance – where God’s grace was given unconditionally. Washington Irving began writing about a Christmas of family gift-giving for children in English homes. He developed a new theme for Christmas around the Dutch Sinter Claus. Clement Moore presented a gentler view of a family Christmas in his poem, A Visit from St. Nick.
Reverend Wiggleworth cast Christ’s Second Coming as a time to fear divine judgment. Clement Moore envisioned Christmas without Christ’s judgment. He envisioned church bishops no longer serving as Church gatekeepers who stopped sinners from entering the Kingdom of Heaven.
Clement Moore recast the Dutch patron saint of New York – Saint Nicholas as that gift giver of grace. Saint Nicholas had originally had been a church bishop from Smyrna in the fourth century. The Bishop Nicholas of Christian judgment became the Saint Nicholas who granted grace without repentance. He introduced his new Nicholas in a poem about Christmas that was printed and distributed throughout New York City. The poem was known as A Visit from Saint Nicholas.
We know that poem by its first verse, “The Night before Christmas.”
The key verse in Clement Moore’s A Visit from Saint Nicholas was when a little boy discovers Saint Nicholas before the family Christmas tree. “A wink of his eye and a twist of head, soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.”
Clement Moore’s Saint Nicholas freely gave gifts to children and families, not God’s judgment.
Christmas became a season that didn’t need preparation before the Lord’s Second Coming. Grace was granted without repentance. Clement Moore’s poem marketed a new face for Christmas. It bore fruit far beyond its intentions by John Pintard, Washington Irving, and the New York Historical Society.
We now live in a national culture of Christmas without the need for repentance. John Pintard, Washington Irving, and Clement Moore’s Christian faith had much to do with this.
Therein lies the danger.
We are indeed blessed by receiving Jesus Christ’s grace. God’s grace inspires us to sacrificial giving that shares the hope of Christ’s birth with others. God’s grace bears Christmas fruit!
Yet the giving of God’s grace in Jesus Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection, and the receiving of God’s grace from Jesus Christ are very different. God gives His grace unconditionally. But a society of people who receive that grace without contrition and humility is a society that doesn’t know Jesus Christ. It’s a society lacking gratitude and respect for why Jesus was born.
The fruit of Christmas is spoiled by ingratitude. Ingratitude denies the reason why God sent His only Son to save the world. A world denying it needs God’s grace and mercy condemns itself to God’s judgment. A world denying the need for Christ’s birth is one step closer to a cosmic tribulation that grateful Christians want to avoid.
Talk to public defenders representing law breakers across this land. Too many have no remorse when they’re guilty of breaking the law. They expect grace from judges and juries in their insistence they’ve done nothing wrong. Their lack of repentance demands from everyone else they’re entitled to guilt without consequence.
We can be just as unrepentant.
Repentance acknowledges a person deserves a consequence for his or her sin. Gratitude shows we’re thankful when grace is given, especially when it isn’t warranted. Repentance prepares people to receive grace.
No loving relationship lasts without grace. Every relationship that’s long-lasting needs repentance. Repentance is the catalyst that inspires grace-giving. With grace there’s hope for a future without the sins from the past tormenting us.
Jesus Christ’s birth and His Second Coming are times of hope. The fruit of God’s hope at Christmas is borne from the root of repentance. Jesus’ birth leads us to have hope in God’s grace returning to save our sin-sick world. A repentant heart is the key trait God seeks through Christ’s return.
Use this time to cultivate a repentant heart. Pray for God to break down those places of resistance within you that prevent you from receiving His grace. Pray for Christ to reveal to you those thoughts of denial that challenge God’s giving of His grace in Jesus’ return.
There once was a time when all families received at Christmas was fruit – a few apples and pears, maybe an orange. They didn’t receive the Kohl’s Department store under their Christmas tree. They were days when mothers and fathers read the Bible to their family on the Sabbath, and the Christmas story to their children on Christmas Day. They were days when children were thankful for the little sweetness in simple gifts that reminded them of the original meaning of Christmas.
They had little. They expected little. What they had was their family and their faith in Jesus’ love at Christmas.
They were grateful for the gift of God’s grace around a humble tree at the end of December. They weren’t afraid to say they were sorry before God. They knew why Christ came and what it meant for Him to return.
They were thankful. And they were ready, for Christ’s return. Their gratitude before God was the fruit of Christmas.
Let us recover such a heart as we get ready to receive Christ’s fruit! Amen.