Pastor Scott L. Harris
Grace Bible Church, NY
December 21, 2003
Holy & Free, Part 14: Dealing with Cultural Traditions
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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