Holy & Free, Part 14: Dealing with Cultural Traditions

(Greek words can be viewed using the Symbol font)

 

Pastor Scott L. Harris

Grace Bible Church, NY

December 21, 2003

Holy & Free, Part 14: Dealing with Cultural
Traditions

Selected Scriptures

This morning I want to deal with cultural traditions. That is
especially appropriate at this time of year because, if we are
not careful, many of our society’s cultural Christmas
traditions can overwhelm the purpose of the season. There are, of
course, many American cultural traditions that we may need to
think through, but this morning, I want us to concentrate on
those related to Christmas. The principles that we will learn
here can be applied to any other cultural tradition.

Before we begin, I want to remind you that the theme of this
series of sermons has been that the Christian has a lot of
freedom in Jesus Christ to do what they desire as long as it is
in keeping with the commands and principles that God has given us
in His Word, the Bible, and in keeping with our own pursuit of
holiness. Remember that both freedom in Christ and holiness are
not only compatible but are necessary. To pursue holiness without
freedom results in legalism. To pursue freedom without holiness
results in licentiousness. Either of these is dishonoring to God.
Our purpose is to honor Him by understanding the commands and
principles He has given us in His Word and then apply them to our
lives. That includes this area of how we deal with cultural
traditions.

Principles : What principles apply to cultural
traditions?

1) Obey The Lord in All Things

First, remember that in keeping any cultural tradition, just
as in doing anything else in our lives, the Christian is not to
disobey God. All His general commands and the principles that
come from those must be followed.

For example, just using the 10 commandments in Exodus 20 as a
starting point, since they are the foundation for all the rest of
God’s commands, we find the following: First, we are to have
no other god’s before us. Second, we are not to have any
idols. Third, we are not to take the name of the Lord in vain. As
we consider participation in any cultural activity, we must
consider them in relationship to any compromise in our own
worship of God. If the activity diminishes or competes with God,
then we must either change what we do or not participate in it at
all. For example, it would be wrong for Christians to be a
celebrant in a festival to another god. Any participation they
have will have to be in a manner that would glorify the true God.

The next commandment, to keep the Sabbath, is not repeated in
the New Testament to Christians. However, as Romans 14:5,6 says,
we are to be fully convinced in our own minds about what days we
observe or do not observe. If you are convinced that a certain
day is to be observed in a certain way, then you cannot let
cultural traditions force you to compromise. You must have your
own convictions according to your own measure of faith and only
do what you have faith to do, otherwise you will fall into sin
(Romans 14:22,23).We will talk more about this specific topic in
a couple of weeks.

The fifth commandment is to honor your father and mother.
While I can’t think of any cultural traditions that are
purposely against that, as Christians we need to be sensitive to
how what we do will affect our parents. We would not want to join
in activities that would later cause them embarrassment. If your
parents do not want you to participate in something or are even
hesitant about it, then you need to think twice about it even if
you are an adult. Even if the activity itself is fine and they
are only concerned about your safety, you need to consider how
you can honor your parents.

The sixth commandment is Thou shalt not murder.
Remember that Jesus expanded on this commandment and gave stern
warning about the dangers of hatred (Matt. 5:21-22), and John
equated hatred with murder (1 John 3:15). The Christian must
either change or not participate in any cultural tradition that
promotes hatred.

The seventh commandment is Thou shalt not commit adultery.
This is another commandment that Jesus expanded on in the Sermon
on the Mount. He said "that everyone who looks on a woman
to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his
heart"
(Mt. 5:27,28). The Christian cannot participate
in anything that would promote adultery or such lust. Immorality,
impurity and sensuality are included in the lists of the deeds of
the flesh in Galatians 5:19 that are to be avoided by Christians.
For example, There is nothing wrong with a bachelor party for the
groom prior to a wedding, but a believer must be careful of
sensual "stag" parties that are common in some social
groups.

The eighth commandment is Thou shalt not steal. This is
something that is very straightforward. The Christian should not
take what does not belong to them without permission from the
owner. That includes intangible items such as reputation as well
as material things. For example, there is nothing inherently
wrong with initiation rites to get into some particular group
unless what is required demands you do something contrary to
God’s commands. If such a demand is made and cannot be
changed, then that is probably a group a Christian should not be
part of.

The ninth commandment is You shall not bear false witness
against your neighbor.
We can add to this the many Scriptural
injunctions not to lie such as Colossians 3:9, "Do not
lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its
[evil] practices
." Christians should be known for their
truthfulness because that is a reflection of Jesus who even
referred to Himself as "the truth" (John 14:6).
Admittedly, this may be one of the tougher commandments to keep
living in a society in which truth is not respected the way it
once was. When it comes to cultural traditions, this is also the
commandment that will make us do the most thinking about whether
to join in a celebration, and how to do so if we do participate,
for it brings up the whole question of what to do about mythical
cultural characters. With some them you will be able to present
the truth and still have fun with them, while with others, you
will have to find a substitute, or abandon completely. More on
this in a few minutes.

The 10th commandment is to not covet anything that
belongs to someone else. The first and the last commandments are
the toughest because they deal with heart issues instead of some
specific action. Most of us are quite aware of our specific
failures to obey God, but some people who have generally good
behavior can fool other people, and sometimes even themselves,
that they actually are good people. Such was the view of the rich
young ruler in Luke 18, yet he still knew he lacked something.
Coveting and not loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and
strength cannot be overcome even by those that think of
themselves as good.

The joy of Christmas is that God made provision for our
failure to obey Him by sending Jesus Christ. The failure to obey
God is sin, and the wages of sin is death, both spiritual and
physical. Sin keeps us from God and is the reason that all of us
will die physically unless the Lord returns first. Man could not
approach God because of his sinful condition, and he could not
appease God with anything He had, because God already owns
everything and is in need of nothing from man. But God in His
grace made provision for us by becoming a man. That is the
incarnation and the reason for celebrating Christmas. God became
a man in Jesus Christ. He then lived a sinless life so that He
could offer Himself up as an acceptable substitute payment for
our sin, which He did on the cross at Calvary. His offer of
eternal life for those who will believe in Him was proven when He
rose from the dead. Forty days later He ascended to Heaven where
He is preparing a place for those who have faith in Him, and He
promised to return for those that belong to Him and take them
there with Him. Christmas is celebrated because of the
incarnation that has brought us this wonderful hope of our sins
being forgiven and heaven being our home. I trust that is what
you will be celebrating this Thursday, if it something else, then
talk with myself or one of our other church leaders and let us
explain further how Jesus Christ can be your savior and restore
you to the relationship God wants you to have with Himself.

So the first principle is that in keeping any cultural
tradition the Christian is obey God and keep all His general
commands and the principles that come from them.

2) Properly Adapt to the Cultural for the Sake of the
Gospel

Now everything that occurs during this season that does not
focus on Christ is a cultural addition. The question before is
what to do about them. As it seems in most situations, so it is
in this one that there are two extremes. There are those that
accept anything and everything deemed acceptable by society, and
those that reject nearly everything common in society to which
they cannot attach a specific Bible verse. Paul did not go to
either extreme. Turn to 1 Cor. 9:19.

"For though I am free from all [men,] I have made
myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. And to the Jews
I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under
the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law,
that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are
without law, as without law, though not being without the law of
God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are
without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the
weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may by all
means save some. And I do all things for the sake of the gospel,
that I may become a fellow partaker of it."

Even without going into all the details, it is clear that Paul
was not afraid of the culture, whether it be Jew or Gentile. He
knew how to adapt properly to use the culture for his purpose of
proclaiming Jesus Christ. Without compromise of any Biblical
principle, for He was still under the Law of Christ, Paul
would strive to fit within the culture he was in. He would then
find the points of contact within that culture by which he could
open a door for the gospel of Jesus Christ. A good example of
this is in Acts 17 when he is invited by the philosophers to Mars
Hill to hear what he had to say. Paul could have immediately
attacked their paganism, as some preachers would do today.
Instead, Paul used their worship of so many gods, including an
altar with the inscription, To An Unknown God, to open the
door for the truth about the God that created them that they did
not know.

We must also be as wise in reaching those in the many
sub-cultures of our own nation. Adapting to cultural customs that
do not violate any Biblical principles is a way of opening the
door to proclaim the gospel. But we must be sure that is what we
are doing, because there is a difference between adapting to a
culture for the gospel’s sake and being assimilated into the
culture. There can be many opportunities for the gospel in our
cultural holiday traditions.

3) God Redeems People & More

The third principle is that just because something has its
origin in or is widely practiced in a false religion does not
mean that it cannot be adapted for use in glorifying God. Many of
the Psalms were written in the styles commonly used in pagan
worship. Items used in pagan worship and practices, such as the
organ, were later incorporated into the worship of the true God
to such a degree that they took on the role of being
"sacred" instruments in the church.

This is an important point in dealing with Christmas cultural
traditions because most of the popular ones have their origin in
a pagan practice of some kind.

4) Create or Use Traditions to Teach about the Lord

A fourth principle for us to consider is that we should create
or use our traditions to teach about the Lord. The problem with
most traditions is that we forget why we do them. Most people,
including Christians, work hard during the holidays to keep their
traditions, but they don’t know why they do them except that
they or their family have always done it that way. The result is
that many of these practices are done more with a sense of
obligation than of joy and meaning. Even a good tradition that
has lost its meaning is fruitless.

Throughout the Scriptures we see memorials set up or
traditions established specifically so that the people would
remember what God had done and would pass down the stories of
God’s work to their children, grandchildren and beyond. Such
was the reason for the institution of Passover in Exodus 13 and
the Memorial Stones in Joshua 4. You can create your own holiday
traditions to do the same. You can also give meaning to already
established holiday customs to do this. More on this in a few
minutes.

These four Biblical principles that guide us as to how to deal
with cultural traditions. 1) Do not compromise Biblical commands
and principles. 2) Properly adapt to the culture in order to
reach people with the gospel; 3) You can adapt items and
practices of Pagan origin or usage for godly purposes. 4)
Establish traditions that will remind you of God and His work in
your life. Let us now examine some of the more widely practiced
Christmas traditions and consider what we might do with them.

The Date of Christmas

There are Christians that do not celebrate Christmas. That was
and is true for some with strong Calvinistic theology including
John Knox and his followers, the English and American Puritans
and Separatists (Pilgrims) and some Presbyterians. These folks
simply do not want to emphasize something the Scriptures do not.

Remember that the Bible does not give a precise date for the
birth of Jesus. Scholars through the centuries have used various
methods to propose many dates including January 2 or 6, March 28,
April 2, 18, 19, or 20, May 20, September 29, November 18, and
December 25. (I have a paper available on these various
calculations. Just ask me for it if you are interested.).
Whatever date is celebrated is based more on tradition than
actual fact. The emphasis of the Bible is that God became a man
and came, not on the day on which He came. The first record of
Christmas being celebrated is from the 3rd Century. By
the A.D. 336, the Western church was celebrating December 25.
Frankly, this was a convenient date because it was a good
alternative to the pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Winter
Solstice which occurred at the same time period. Additional
customs from other pagan winter festivals were added as
Christianity spread throughout Europe. Most of our popular
Christmas customs are pagan in origin.

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not is your decision before
the Lord. However, if you do celebrate it, you should do so with
the same mindset as Paul of using the cultural traditions as
springboards into presenting the gospel, or of the Psalmist who
changed the meanings in order to praise the true God. If your
Christmas traditions are celebrating Christ, then whatever pagan
origin they may have is irrelevant. God not only redeems man, but
He causes all things to praise Him including what used to be used
to praise false gods.

Santa Claus

The big jolly fellow dressed in red with white trimmings
probably causes the most confusion and reaction. Santa Claus has
his origin in Nicholas, a bishop of Myra in Lycia, Asia Minor,
who lived during the fourth century. He was known to be a kind
and generous man. He was the son of wealthy parents, and when he
inherited their money it enabled him to be even more generous,
and he became known for giving gifts to the needy, apparently
often leaving them at night. One story is that in tossing a bag
of gold through a window, it landed in a stocking that had been
hung up to dry. Hence the origin of a tradition that continues
today.

Bishop Nicholas died on December 6 in the late 340’s or early
350’s. His passing was then commemorated with an annual feast. On
the eve of this feast children would place food out for him and
straw for his donkey. It was said the bishop would then come from
heaven, unknown to them during the night, and replace the gifts
of good boys and girls with toys and sweets. Nicholas’ fame
spread throughout Europe and with it the traditions of
celebrating him. It is said that there are more churches in
Europe named after him than all of the Apostles combined. In
Germany he was known as Weinachtsmann (Christmas man), in
France, Pere Noel, who placed his gifts in the
children’s shoes as did Sinterklaas for Dutch
children. In Russia he was known as Father Frost and in
England as Father Christmas, who had a long beard and
large sack of toys.

With the coming of the Reformation in the 16th

century, the worship of Saints was banned in Germany and England,
but people were used to the annual visit form the gift-giving
saint, this resulted in some merging of this celebration with
Christmas itself. In Germany, Saint Nicholas was replaced with Christkindli,
"Christ Child," which later degenerated into Kris
Kringle, a fairly-like creature that brought gifts at Christmas
time. It was the Dutch that brought the celebration to North
America where Sinterklaas became Americanized to
"Santy Claus" and then Santa Claus.

Many additional features have been added to the Santa Claus
tradition in the last several centuries. In early traditions he
was tall and thin, but in 1809 Washington Irving, writing about
the Dutch in New York, changed him into a plump fellow who rode
in a wagon above the tree tops and dropped presents down
chimneys. In 1822, the poem "A Visit from St.
Nicolas"
changed the wagon to a sleigh and the horses
into reindeer. In the 1860’s, cartoonist Thomas Nash of
Harper’s Weekly gave Santa a white beard. Montgomery Wards
Department Stores added Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1939
when it commissioned a free gift book as a sales promotion. There
is much more that could be said about Santa Claus and the many
more traditions that have sprung up around him. But our question
is how should the Biblical Christian respond to him?

There are two major concerns for the Biblical Christian
concerning modern Santa Claus traditions. First, Santa is
becoming more and more of a figure possessing god-like attributes
including omniscience (he knows who is good and bad), near
omnipresence (he covers the world in one night), supernatural
abilities (goes down chimneys too small for him, gets into locked
rooms, all in some sort of time vacuum), has unlimited wealth
(makes toys for all the world’s children year after year),
and is incredibly good. He has not been made eternal yet, but he
has apparently lived for many centuries without an end in sight.
We must be careful not to take away the glory that belongs to God
and give it to anyone else. Santa Claus is a god-like being to
many children.

Second, we must make sure our children understand the
difference between myth and reality. There is nothing wrong with
using myth and fantasy for either fun or education as long as the
child knows that they are not true. Allegories and "Once
upon a time" stories can be very helpful and enjoyable . The
problem with Santa is that he is often presented as reality.
Children are taught to "believe" in him. Even if a
child came up with such an idea from friends, it can only be
maintained through lying. Let me give you a strong caution on
this. Not only are Christians to refrain from lying, but those
who teach their child to believe in Santa will face a difficulty
in the future, for eventually the child will learn that Santa is
a myth, and then the child will legitimately question whether
what you have told them about Jesus Christ is truth or myth. You
compromise your trustworthiness.

Now I know there can be a lot of pressure by family and
friends that you must teach your kids to also believe in Santa.
The usual argument is that it would take away the children’s
fun if we taught them the truth. A corollary to this is that they
don’t want your kids to spoil the "fun" of other
kids. Diane & I did not teach our children to
"believe" in Santa Claus, and we also taught them to
not make an issue of it with other children. Instead, we taught
them about St. Nicholas and the Santa Claus mythologies. I can
honestly say that our children enjoy Christmas and even Santa
Claus as mythology, and we have not had to compromise the glory
of God or truth. A make-believe Santa is as much or more fun than
trying to make him real. Ask my kids.

The parameters for the Christian here are that we cannot
violate the 1st, 2nd or 9th
commandments by taking away glory that only belongs to God by
attributing it to some other being, nor can we lie. You have to
decide what is more important to you. If your kids
"believe" in Santa Claus and you want to tell them the
truth I have a couple of suggestions.

First, sit down with them and be humble. Tell them you have
been participating in a cultural tradition in a way that you now
know is not what God wants and then tell them about St. Nicholas
and the origin of Santa Claus. (I have material on this including
two video tapes that give the history). With your families, you
just have to tell them that your children already know the truth
about Santa Claus and that you prefer it that way and want to
emphasize Jesus Christ at Christmas. You may have an opportunity
to witness at this point for the issue here is not Santa Claus,
but Jesus Christ – whose birthday is supposed to be anyway? Also
tell them that you have instructed your children not to tell
other kids.

Christmas Trees

I have heard some Christians reject Christmas trees because
God told the Israelites to "utterly destroy all the
places where the nations whom you shall dispossess serve their
gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every
green tree"
(Deut. 12:12). Israel did not do this and
latter we find Jews worshiping false gods under "every green
tree" (2 Kings 16:4). Therefore, they do not want to bring
such a tree into their home. That is poor Bible exposition, but
there is no Biblical virtue in having a Christmas Tree, so no one
has to bring one into their house.

That practice seems to have become part of Christmas around
A.D. 700. Boniface, the missionary was serving in Germany and he
cut down the sacred oak under which the Druids worshiped. A fir
tree grew where the oak had been, and Boniface told them it was a
tree of peace. There is also a legend that its origin is in
medieval German mystery plays in which the tree was used to
symbolize the Garden of Eden. Other consider the Christmas tree
to be related to pagan tree worship that traces back to ancient
Rome and Egypt.

Whatever its origin, by the 16th century Germans
were bringing evergreen trees inside and decorating them. Prince
Albert of Germany, who married English Queen Victoria, brought
the practice to England, and from England it came to the U.S.,
where the decorations became more elaborate.

What is the meaning of the Christmas tree? You have to decide
that. For many it is simply one of those traditions you do
because your parents did it or because everyone else does it and
you enjoy it. In our own house we use it to recount God’s
blessing to us over the years as we tell the stories behind the
decorations we hang. Evergreens are also common symbols of life
because they do not lose their leaves in the Winter. You can use
it to talk about eternal life. Consider as well the importance of
a tree in our salvation. Paul said in Galatians 3:13,14, "Christ
redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for
us– for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a
tree "– 14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of
Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the
promise of the Spirit through faith.
" A Christmas tree
is what you make of it, and you can use it to point people to
Christ.

Christmas Wreaths

Wreaths, like evergreen trees, symbolize the strength of life
overcoming the forces of Winter. In ancient Rome, people used
decorative wreaths as a sign of victory and celebration, which is
probably the origin of hanging them on a front door. In our own
time they are more decorative than anything else, but you can
make it what you want it to be. In the midst of Winter,
evergreens are a common symbol of the hope of renewal in the
Spring. Use this to point out God’s faithfulness. God
promised in Genesis 8:22, "While the earth remains,
Seedtime and harvest, And cold and heat, And summer and winter,
And day and night Shall not cease.
" You could also point
out that a wreath is a circle, which has no beginning or end, so
it is with God who is eternal, and grants eternal life through
Jesus Christ.

Holly

Holly was used by early Christians for making decorations. The
bush or tree with the bright green leaves and red berries was
called the Holy Tree, from which "holly" is derived. It
reminded European Christians of the crown of thorns that Jesus
wore when He was crucified with the red berries symbolic of His
shed blood. Holly decorations can still be used in the same way
today if you will point out this symbolism.

Christmas Carols

Singing at happy times is just part of the way God made man.
The word "carol" is derived from a Greek dance which
was accompanied by a flute. The dance spread throughout Europe
and the French replaced the flute with singing. By the 1600’s,
carols involved singing only and Christmas had become the main
holiday in which they were sung. Carols include both the joyful
songs of the season as well as Christmas hymns and songs of the
Advent. You can do a lot to make the season what you want by what
songs you choose to listen to. Personally, I appreciate that the
religious Christmas carols giving us an opportunity to speak of
Jesus Christ to those who do not know Him.

Christmas Cards

The first Christmas Card was created in 1843 by John Horsley.
It resembled a postcard and showed a large family celebrating
Christmas and read, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to
You.
About 1,000 of them were made. Today, millions of cards
are sent in the U.S. alone. This is another tradition that will
be what you make it. Some do it out of obligation. Others do it
out of joy. Some send whatever card they can get for the best
price. Others make sure the message of the card is what they want
to send. If you send cards, this is a good way to give people a
message about Jesus Christ. Diane and I also include a letter
describing what God has done in our lives over the past year. It
is a little more work, but it is a way in which we can personally
glorify God for His work in our lives to our family and friends.

Candy Cane

A candymaker in Indiana produced this sweet as a witness to
Jesus Christ. The white symbolizes Jesus’ Virgin Birth and
sinless nature. It is a hard candy Jesus is the Solid Rock, the
foundation of Church and the firmness of God’s promises. It
is in the shape of a "J" to represent
"Jesus," but the shape is also that of a
shepherd’s crook, symbolizing Jesus as the Good Shepherd who
rescues His fallen lambs. The three small red stripes symbolize
Jesus’ scourging and the large red stripe for His blood shed
for us on the cross as the payment for our sins.

There are of course many more traditions that we could talk
about, but I think you get the idea. There is freedom in Jesus
Christ to participate in cultural traditions, but we must also
pursue holiness and bring honor to our God and Savior. My
challenge to you this morning is to think through the traditions
you keep and evaluate them by these principles. 1) Do not
compromise Biblical commands and principles. 2) Properly adapt to
the culture in order to reach people with the gospel; 3) You can
adapt items and practices of Pagan origin or usage for godly
purposes. 4) Establish traditions that will remind you of God and
His work in your life. I am sure that in doing so, you can make
this Christmas season even more meaningful and an even better
celebration.

 

Sermon
Study Sheets

KIDS CORNER

Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your
children’s lives. Here is some help.

Young Children – draw a picture about something you
hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents
at lunch. Older Children – Do one or more of the
following: 1) Write down all the verses mentioned in the sermon
and look them up later. 2) Count how many times the word
"Christmas" is said. Talk with your parents about the
meaning of traditions you observe at Christmas

THINK ABOUT IT!

Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others.

Is it ever right to disobey any of God’s commands or the
principles derived from them? How should you respond to a
cultural tradition that requires you to disobey Him? How did Paul
respond to the different cultures he was in and why? – 1
Corinthians 9:19f. Can things once used for pagan worship be used
to worship God? Why or why not? What traditions do you have or
use to teach about the Lord? Is it okay to celebrate Jesus’
birth on December 25? Why or why not? What is the origin of Santa
Claus? What are the major concerns Christians should have about
him? What is the origin of the following: Christmas Trees,
wreaths, Holly, carols and cards. How can a Christian use them?
What is the symbolism of the Candy Cane?

Sermon Notes – December 21, 2003

Holy & Free, Part 14 – Dealing with
Cultural Traditions

General Principles

1) Obey the Lord in All Things

 

2) Properly Adapt to the Culture for the Sake of the
Gospel

 

3) God Redeems People & More

 

4) Create or Use Traditions to Teach about the Lord

 

The Date of Christmas

 

Santa Claus

 

Christmas Trees

 

Christmas Wreaths

 

Holly

 

Christmas Carols

 

Christmas Cards

 

Candy Cane