The Sunday before Christmas, for those of us who are thoroughly immersed in the culture of church, is when the choir does its Christmas Cantata, that is, if your church has a choir. Ours doesn’t but we happened to be out of town this weekend, celebrating our wedding anniversary, and since it is our habit to visit in a church if we are away from home, we happened to be in one with a nice sized choir and a very well trained music director.
Cantatas tend to be predictable, choir numbers interspersed with narrations that help transition from one song to the next, a couple of blended songs, a soloist or two, and a grand finale that allows the pastor to move into an invitation. This one had all of those elements. But it was certainly not “run of the mill.” Whoever arranged this one had a gift for understanding how to lead a congregation to worship. It wasn’t just a performance. The visual illustrations, the songs that were chosen, the narrations, all followed a pattern of worship that began with praise and expressions of joy to God, led to conviction and confession of sin, the realization that we have a savior who came to bring us back to God, and the celebration of his birth. The choir was giving a gift back to God, and they were leading the congregation to do the same. For about an hour, Christmas was focused on its real meaning.
We were about an hour and a half from home, and maybe I shouldn’t have tuned in to news radio for the ride after a worship experience like that. There was a call-in talk show on the air where people call in for legal advice and an attorney answers their questions. For a solid hour, virtually every caller was focused on finding some way to gain some kind of financial advantage over someone who had crossed their path. From a caller who wanted to know if he cheated his insurance company what the odds would be of them coming after him to collect, to one who was looking how to get the largest possible settlement out of an auto accident, the whole program was a great illustration of human selfishness.
Now I’m not going to head out on a diatribe against selfishness. The very act of putting yourself at the center of your own universe is the root cause of sin. What bothers me most about the whole thing is that I’d just come from a spiritual experience in which I believed I had an encounter with the Holy Spirit, and listening to the callers, and yet found myself experiencing sympathy for the idea of someone coming out ahead with something they really didn’t deserve. Without even thinking about it, while I was listening and driving, I found myself sympathizing with a guy who had been in a fender bender with a delivery truck, and was calling to see how much he could sue for in order to pressure the company that owned the truck into writing him a big check to avoid the lawsuit. It was very subtle, and it took a few minutes for me to pull my thoughts back around to the point where I shook my head, smiled a bit, and realized, “Hey, that was wrong!”
Everywhere, all around us, the focus of the Christmas season is on anything but what it really means. A lot of people celebrate it and do their best to separate it from the celebration of the birth of Jesus, God’s son and the savior of the world, including their own soul. It is ironic that it is such an integral part of our culture that we cannot imagine not celebrating it, and yet public schools cannot perform “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” or a city hall cannot display a nativity scene. To be politically correct, “Happy Holidays” is considered the appropriate greeting. The bottom line is whether or not this year’s Christmas gift buying will be better than it was last season, and how big the profits will be. But if a nativity, or a carol about Christ’s birth, is not permissible, then the real meaning of Christmas, to most people, is nothing more than a day to be off work, and an excuse to spend money in the hope that you will get more in return than you give.
The members of the choir in church this morning invested a lot of time and effort to give the gift that they shared for about an hour. Those moments can’t be measured in dollars.