Christmas 2019 is past. It’s over. The gifts have been unwrapped. The meal was eaten. For many, the family has gone, and we are back to work. It’s such a shame, really. All the excitement. The preparation, the anticipation. And Christmas was wonderful—at least for Kristina and me it was, and I trust you had a wonderful and Merry Christmas, too.
It just that—why did it have to end? I mean, why can’t it keep on being Christmas. At least for a little while longer. You know, if it were up to my wife, I think we’d leave the Christmas tree up all year long!
I’m sure not everyone would be pleased at the proposal. Honestly, I tend to be the one to say, “OK, I think Christmas is long past, shouldn’t we take the tree down and redecorate?” But others would just as soon keep it up all year.
And I get that, really. Because in our culture, Christmas has come to represent something that no other holiday does. A time to stop everything that we’re doing. A time to relax, to spend time with family, and to reconnect in a way we rarely do at other times of the year.
Yes, there’s the materialism and the commerce and the make-believe and the false-gospel of “Santa Clause” that you’ve heard me railing about at Christmas. But, if you put that aside, there’s something that our hearts long for about Christmas.
My brother recently got a job driving a flatbed truck, over-the-road. Since he started several months ago, he hadn’t once made it home, until Christmas day. Even Thanksgiving day, he was stuck out on the road. And we were so thankful this week that he finally made it home, and we could have Christmas dinner together.
I think I feel the sorriest for people who have to be at work on Christmas day. If you go through town on Christmas, shops and stores are closed. Even Walmart—the store that never closes—is closed for 36 hours, from 6pm on Christmas Eve, until 6am the day after Christmas. Unless you work in a hospital, or for some critical services, chances are you’ll have Christmas day off work, even if you’re never guaranteed another day of the year off.
There’s something almost sacred about the Christmas hours. We sing songs about being “home for Christmas”. And what do we think of the businessman who chooses to spend Christmas day in the office, rather than coming home to his family? Certainly he must be doing something important, or else he has no family. Otherwise, he would be akin to the Grinch himself!
And it’s not just Christmas day, but, at least in our family, Christmas Eve is perhaps the most magical time of the Christmas holiday. When it’s dark outside, and you can see the lights, and imagine the snowflakes drifting down—it’s perhaps the best part of all of Christmas! You can’t help but wish that you could keep Christmas all year long.
We feel this way—many of us—despite the fact that Christmas is a man-made holiday. Not that it’s about us—it is and should be about Christ, but you won’t find Christmas in the Bible—not the way we celebrate it.
But have you ever considered that God Himself is the author of something far better than Christmas?
What would it be like, to have a Christmas all year long? One that we prepare for, plan for, and get “in the spirit” for, every single week? A special holiday that brings us together as families, and draws us to God, like nothing else in the world can? My friends, God has given us exactly that. Since the very dawning of creation, God consecrated to us—to humankind—a memorial in time. A special day of rest, for communion with Him:
And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.
God reiterates this Sabbath observance in the heart of the ten commandments. We read in Exodus 20:8-10:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work…
“Sure” you say, “but what does the Sabbath have to do with Christmas?” More than you might think, actually. Because in our culture’s observance of Christmas, I believe we’ve captured a bit of the meaning and purpose that God originally intended for the Sabbath.
People ask me sometimes, “What does it mean, not to ‘work’ on the Sabbath? … What about this, or that, is it ‘OK’ to do on the Sabbath?” We could probably write an encyclopedia of rules, like the Pharisees, for keeping the Sabbath, but not from the Bible.
Ironically, when it comes it Christmas, we seem to instinctively know what’s OK and what’s not OK. Imagine this conversation on Christmas morning, between a wife and her husband:
“What? You’re going to the office on Christmas Day?”
“Yeah, got to get that paper finished for the attorney to review next week. The work never stops, you know.”
“But he said you can extend the deadline. What about the family?”
“Honey, I’ve got to push forward. We’ve got bills to pay, you know, and maybe if I finish this project early, I can take another one before spring.”
“But what about Christmas Dinner with my parents and the kids?”
“It’ll be OK. Just send me something in my lunch, the fast-food place will be closed. I’ll see the kids tonight. Get my lunch I’ve got to run…”
You’re thinking—this guy has got issues, right? He’s driving to the office on Christmas day, instead of spending it with his family?
The story seems a bit unlikely, in today’s culture of Christmas. Even if the husband hated Christmas–even if he hated his in-laws and would rather spend the day in the office, chances are he won’t skip Christmas day. Why? Because in our culture, there’s so much social pressure to keep Christmas, the man would lose his reputation the next week, when his co-workers found out he skipped Christmas to work in the office–alone!
But do we ever act this way when it comes to the Sabbath? We might excuse it, “God will understand. God knows that I need to feed my family.” And granted, it is hard to keep Sabbath, sometimes, in a world that doesn’t understand. When it comes to Sabbath, the social pressure in our society works the other way. But imagine the wife and kids, watching the father pull out of the driveway on Christmas morning. I wonder if that’s what God must feel like, when we ignore that special time with Him?
God says to Israel in Isaiah 58:13-14:
“If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath,
From doing your pleasure on My holy day,
And call the Sabbath a delight,
The holy day of the Lord honorable,
And shall honor Him, not doing your own ways,
Nor finding your own pleasure,
Nor speaking your own words,
Then you shall delight yourself in the Lord;
And I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth,
And feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father.
The mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
What does it mean to “turn away your foot”? Have you ever seen a garden that was trampled down by careless feet? That’s what we do to God’s Sabbath, so many times. Just like someone who won’t take off Christmas day to spend with their family, how many times do we plunge ahead in doing “important” things like work, planning, caring for the things of this world, while we neglect the essentials?
Jesus taught this lesson on priorities through a simple incident recorded in Luke 10:38-42:
38 Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.”
41 And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. 42 But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Perhaps he could say the same thing to many of us—“you are worried…about many things, but one thing is needed.” And that one thing that is needed is to sit at Jesus’ feet, and learn from Him. Sure, there is a time to be concerned with food and preparations and all the rest, but each and every week comes a time when we can sit at Jesus’ feet, and as much as possible, put all those cares aside.
When Christmas season comes, we might spend a month or two getting ready for the big day. It’s not even so much about the day anymore, as about the whole season of preparation for Christmas, that makes Christmas what it is. Perhaps that’s how God meant the Sabbath to be, too. From Sunday through Friday, we live our days looking forward to the special Sabbath day. Each day, we can do something to prepare for the next Sabbath. And because it comes each week, without fail, there’s never a day that isn’t part of the “Sabbath season.”
What do you suppose is the best part of Christmas? Perhaps it’s waking up Christmas morning to laughter and stockings stuffed with presents. But perhaps even more enchanting is Christmas Eve. And what is the best part of the Sabbath? Would it not be the opening hours, as the sun sinks beneath the horizon on Friday evening?
Isn’t this interesting: Most of the time, we say that the day starts at midnight, or in the morning, but when it comes to Christmas, we follow the Biblical principle that the day starts in the evening?
When God created the world, he said “the and the morning were the first day.” And so for each of the days of creation. Each day started in the evening, and then came the morning.
In Leviticus 23:32, the ceremonial sabbaths were celebrated “from evening to evening.” And we see that the disciples and other Jews of Jesus’ time always observed the weekly Sabbath from sundown until sundown (See Mark 1:32, Mark 15:42)
Especially on Friday, before the sun goes down, we want to make sure everything is in order, ready for the Sabbath. Maybe we lay out our clothes for the next day. The meal is ready for Sabbath dinner. The house is clean, the church is ready for meeting. And as the sun goes down, we can open our hearts in worship to our Creator, and think back to the times in Eden when God would come to walk through the garden and commune with Adam and Eve before sin ever entered this world.
What else is special about the Sabbath? Christmas looks back to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The Sabbath looks back even further, to celebrate the creation of this world. But even more than that, the Sabbath is a weekly celebration of God’s miracle of our re-creation and restoration, made possible by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. A restoration to God, not through anything that we’ve done, but made possible entirely by God’s grace. A restoration that we celebrate by resting in Christ.
The writer of Hebrews describes this spiritual meaning of the Sabbath rest. In chapter 4, he describes the promise of rest given to the children of Israel, and how this promise continued through the history of the Israelite nation to the present day. He concludes in Hebrews 4:8-10:
“For if Joshua had given them rest, then He would not afterward have spoken of another day. 9 There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. 10 For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His.”
Christians today point to this passage and say, “See, Jesus fulfilled the Sabbath, so we don’t keep it anymore.” But Jesus kept it, and the apostles kept it, and so did the early Christians even up to the 4th century.
Saying that we don’t have to keep the Sabbath, is about like that Scrooge of a husband I talked about, who decided to spend Christmas day in the office alone, and skip Christmas dinner with his family. Perhaps he would say, “Bah humbug! I don’t need Christmas anymore. I know what Christmas is about now, so it doesn’t really matter. I’ll think about my family while I’m working at the office. That seems pretty extreme to spend a whole day at home with them. I wouldn’t want people to think I’m legalistic or something.”
And in the Christmas stories, we hope somehow that such people will come to realize the foolishness of such actions. And yet the broader Christian world takes this very attitude towards an institution of God—that was meant to bring a blessing better than Christmas, all year long!
At Christmas, we exchange presents with our loved one and family, but on Sabbath, we enter the living presence of God, and receive from Him the greatest gifts we could imagine—His love, His forgiveness, His mercy and grace. In exchange, we give him our broken, sinful selves. Then to our fellow mankind, we forgive and love just as He has forgiven and loved us.
And the best part is, it’s not something that happens just once. It’s not a yearly holiday, like Christmas, but a weekly celebration. Just like Christmas, but all year long. For now, and for ages to come!
And it shall come to pass
That from one New Moon to another,
And from one Sabbath to another,
All flesh shall come to worship before Me,” says the Lord.