The Barrel

by The Rev. John H. Pavelko
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Year A - 2001-2002 | Year B - 2002-2003  | Year C - 2003-2004

The Saving Power of Christmas
This is still a work in progress
Year C - 2nd Sunday in Advent Hebrews 10:5-10
Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, the only creature stirring was a tiny small child. When Santa's back was turned, this little child crawled undetected into Santa's toy bag and transported back to the North Pole. He is quickly taken under the wing of a surrogate father and raised as an elf. Although he is twice the size of his playmates, in his innocence Buddy does not realize that he is not an elf until Papa Elf sits him down for a father-son discussion. This startling revelation compels Buddy to journey back to New York to find his natural parents.

Buddy discovers that life in New York City is quite different than Santa's workshop. His Dad is an overworked executive who publishes children's books but has a place on Santa's Naughty List because he is too busy to spend anytime with the family. Buddy's stepmother, Emily is a loving woman but even she has trouble with his bizarre behavior and sugar loaded diet. The greatest shock is Buddy's discovery that his half brother and everyone else in New York does not believe in Santa. This causes Buddy to embark on a crusade to restore the meaning of Christmas in this non-believing city.

Most critics have given the movie high marks for its clean, amusing good-natured light comedy that exposes how our natural cynicism and excessive worrying about life cause us to miss the real message of Christmas. The film is part of long and honorable tradition of holiday films that include, Miracle on 34th Street, It's a Wonderful Life, Frosty the Snowman and A Charlie Brown Christmas. These films all share the goal of saving Christmas and indirectly are about the saving power of Christmas.1 However, that does not mean that they convey a Christian message. Frederica Mathewes-Green writes that "The most troubling element is the plot proposition that Santa's sleigh can't fly because people don't believe he exists." The power of Christmas is not what you believe but that you believe. She also raises concerns about the material emphasis of the film. Christmas is saved when Buddy's father decides to publish a children's book on the same tale that you have just watched on the silver screen. Children buy the book and everyone is happy. Buying stuff saves Christmas.2

I am not surprised by the distorted message of the film nor its blatantly commercialization of the holiday. Secular culture has so severely misinterpreted that even Christians have a difficult time understanding the real meaning of the season. In a study conducted by George Barna 88% of the respondents identified themselves as Christians but only 37% identified that the birth of Jesus is the most significant aspect of the holiday. Most respondents stated that family time was the most important aspect of Christmas.3 I wonder what those people would have indicated if they had been asked to identify the purpose of Jesus' birth.

Throughout the history of the Church, the people of faith have forgotten or misunderstand the power of the Christmas message resulting in needless arguments and disputes. 

Think of the medieval theologians who replaced Christ with the church and it alliance with Western culture known as "Christendom." The assurance of salvation became a right of birth thereby diminishing the role of discipleship. 

Think of all the philosophical arguments to prove the existence of God. None of them mentioned the birth of a child in a Bethlehem manger. 

Think of the legalistic minds that zealously insisted on strict Sabbath observance, refraining from alcohol and dancing. They enforced behavioral conformity and never mentioned the grace and forgiveness announced by the angels.

"Think of the debate over evolution that has pitted science and Christianity against one another for nearly two centuries now. Is it not remarkable that nearly all disputants in this debate neglect the existence of Jesus Christ?"

"Think of issues like prayer in public schools or abortion. The church has attempted to engage secular culture with arguments of natural law or freedom of religion or divine command theory, but with little or no reflection on the significance of the Incarnation for such issues."4

These examples illustrate how becomes bogged down in needless arguments and misdirected in its mission when it forgets or distorts the message of Christmas.
The Scripture passage from Hebrews is not your typical Christmas lesson. I found very few Christmas sermons based on it but I would argue it contains the heart of the Christmas message. The author reminds us that the wonder of the Incarnation is not found in God sending his Son but in the dying of His Son.

The letter was written to Christians facing persecution. They were tempted to renounce Christ and relapse into Judaism. The author's tactic is to demonstrate the superiority of Jesus Christ over and against any form of legalistic religion. John Stott writes,

He had no sins of his own for which to make sacrifice; the blood he shed was not of goats and calves, but his won; he had no need to offer the same sacrifices repeatedly, which could never take away sins, because he made 'one sacrifice for sins for ever'; and he has thus obtained an 'eternal redemption' and established an 'eternal covenant' which contains the promise, 'I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more."
Without the sacrificial language of the Cross, the cradle becomes a sentimental and powerless holiday decoration. The beauty of a babies smile may bring a warm feeling to our heart but only the painful, torturous destiny of one small child brings reconciles us to the Father and assurance us of salvation.

The modern mind would prefer to ignore this grizzly message. The thought of God requiring the willing sacrificial death of his Son is considered an inhuman act by a barbaric deity. People cannot understand how a loving God would require a brutal death before offering forgiveness.

Phillip Yancy explains that the problem lies in trivialization of sin. During my first year in Boston, I discovered that the city was very diligent in their enforcement of a two-hour parking limit but very lax in their collection of parking fines. Most people ignored the tickets until the city installed a computer database. Once the names of parking violators were posted and accessible to the traffic police, people could be pulled over and arrested for unpaid fines or have an ugly steel contraption known as the Denver-boot, placeed on the front tire of their car. The car could not be driven until the boot was removed and the boot was not removed until all the fines were paid.

Too often, we treat sin like parking tickets that cause problems only when they accumulate. A few minor indiscretions are not considered fatal unless we allow them to multiple to epidemic proportion. Yancy states that the Bible considers even trivial sins more like cancer cells. A few cancers cells can quickly spread and even metastasizes into a form of cancer that is resistant to treatment. Hebrews tells us that only through the sacrifice of the body that was once born in a stable can the cancer be eradicated permanently from our soul.

1 Greg Wright, Online:, December 19, 2003.
2 Frederica Mathewes-Green, "Elf," OurSundayVisitor, Online:, December 19, 2003.
3 Christianity Today, December 9, 1996 Vol. 40, No. 14, Page 71b
4 James R. Edwards, "The Jesus Scandal," Christianity Today, February 4, 2002, Vol. 46, No. 2, Page 76

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