Daring to Be Different During the Holidays

Have you ever thought about the impression a text might leave if you only had a moment to think about it? Take for example Jesus’s declaration in the Sermon on the Mount that believers are “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14). I’ve been in adult Bible studies before where a whole hour or two were spent reflecting on the various implications of these two simple statements. There’s a lot of depth in them! Still, what might Jesus’ audience have taken away after hearing Jesus say this in a sermon and move on? Given that Jesus has just talked about the reality that the kingdom belonged to persecuted peacemakers (Matthew 5:9-12) and that He goes on to say that believers ought to be tasted and seen rather than flavorless and hidden (Matthew 5:13-16), I think His listeners may have thought, “Jesus wants my faith to be noticed by others, even when it’s hard. I need to be different.”

Difference is woven into so many of the Bible’s instructions. There are so many opportunities to demonstrate our difference from those in the world! For now, I’d like to reflect on the special opportunity presented by holidays for believers to demonstrate they are different.

Careful students of the New Testament notice that while early Christians placed a great deal of importance on Sunday, “the first day of the week,” also known as “the Lord’s Day” (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2; Revelation 1:10), there’s no record of them collectively or congregationally celebrating events like Jesus’ birth or death through any kind of special, holy day. While individual believers might have put “one day above another,” others were just as likely to treat “every day alike,” and Paul told individuals in both groups not to “judge your brother” and to keep such matters “to yourself before God” (Romans 14:5, 10, 22). While Paul knew God had given liberty regarding private observances, he feared that collective religious observances of “days and months and seasons and years” could represent turning “again to the weak and beggarly elements” and bring Christians into “bondage” (Galatians 4:9-10).

Over the hundreds of years following the close of the New Testament, what may have begun as private observances began to be practiced congregationally even as the leaders of prominent churches began to wield more and more influence over believers. Over time, these leaders crafted a religious calendar similar to the one observed by Jews in the Old Testament with days that they designed or repurposed to honor Jesus in some way. Along the way, a lot of manmade tradition got woven both into these days and into other beliefs and practices, and people began to question the guidance of these leaders. Even after people rejected these leaders during social movements like the Reformation, they carried with them some of the calendar they created, notably, Christmas and Easter.

For my entire life, I’ve seen Christians who want to return to the simple beliefs and practices of the New Testament struggle with Christmas and Easter. Some use these holiday seasons specifically to condemn these days because of the human teachings and traditions that are sometimes woven into their observance. This certainly allows them to be seen as different by those in the world but sometimes doesn’t achieve the result that Jesus envisioned for that difference, namely, people glorifying the “Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Seeing this, others have chosen the path of least resistance by teaching, preaching, and doing what is expected on or near these days, while making no commentary on them other than to occasionally condemn the behavior of those who condemn these days.

While still allowing for individual Christians to exercise their liberty regarding special days as they see fit, I’d like to argue for a different path regarding religious holidays at a congregational level. Granted, I totally understand the idea of seizing a moment to talk about what’s on everyone’s mind. However, given Jesus’ goal for us is noticeable difference, I really appreciate those in the brotherhood of believers who want to be seen as being different than the denominational world. Is there a way though to be different in a way that makes a difference? I think there is. For years, I’ve made it my practice to highlight the difference of the New Testament pattern from manmade observances without using this particular moment to condemn anyone else’s practice.

As a preacher, I get asked all the time by people in the community about what my church is doing for Christmas or Easter. I love being able to say something like this: “Not much changes for us. Holidays like Christmas and Easter actually aren’t in the Bible. Like the first Christians, we don’t do anything out of the ordinary when these days roll around. We believe in Jesus’ birth and His resurrection, but we try to honor these events every Sunday that we meet together.” I say something similar when teaching or preaching publicly on or near a holiday. Over the years, I’ve had several positive and constructive conversations stem from this approach. Several non-Christians have even commented, “I really like that.” Even if this approach does bring ridicule or cause you to be ostracized, remember, Jesus prefaced His words regarding His desire for you to be different (Matthew 5:13-16) with words about embracing persecution (Matthew 5:10-12).

So, when the next holiday rolls around, will you as a worship leader, preacher, teacher, or simply a Christian discussing his faith with his friends dare to be different? Let’s let our saltiness and light be tasted and seen by those who desperately need to know God’s peace.
-Patrick Swayne  
patrick@tftw.org

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