When God Sets the Table

(These were thoughts from a recent advent sermon)

Socrates once famously said that the unexamined life is not worth living. In a similar vein, I would argue that the unexamined holiday is not worth celebrating. Whenever we do anything on autopilot, it is not surprising that at some point we forget where we are going, or what we were supposed to be doing along the way. And when we are just cruising along in a mindless tradition, it is just a short time before sin takes over. So it is good for the health of our souls to to examine the “whats and wherefores” of Christmas. But we want to examine Christmas as Christians, taking the Scriptures seriously.

In this 25th chapter, the prophet Isaiah prophesies the coming and the consummation of the new covenant. He does so with the image of a glorious feast. The feast is prepared by the Lord of hosts Himself (v. 6). What kind of feast is it? He prepares a feast of fat things, he prepares a feast with aged wines, of meat full of marrow and fat, and then some more aged wines. He sets a table full of red meat and red wine—not a brussel sprout anywhere.

This is the picture we are given of the gospel. It’s not a glass of room temperature water and a stale cracker. Right alongside this feast, or rather in conjunction with it, He will remove the covering that kept us all in darkness for all those centuries. He will take away the veil over the nations (v. 7). The resurrection will come—and we have the down payment of that in the resurrection of Jesus—and death will be swallowed up in victory. SPOILER ALERT: (Through His resurrection,Christ granted the world a preview of the end of history right in the middle of the story.)

The Lord will wipe away every tear, and all things will be put right (v. 8). As those who have trusted this gospel, we have accepted that all of this has now been established in principle, and as we live it out in true evangelical faith, we proclaim this good news. But there must be continuity between what we are saying and how we are living. And by this, I mean much more than that our words should be true and our behavior good. I mean that our words should sound like good news and our lives should smell like good news. There must be the aroma of joy that wafts through the air of this world and makes the mouths of hungry men and women salivate.

So what should this look like when we approach this season of the year? At Christmas we celebrate the time when Joy took on human flesh and was seen in the world of men. This should happen again and again in our own lives. Joy should take on flesh. Our lives should be another manifestation of incarnate joy.

This means that we celebrate Christmas like modern-day Puritans.

Some of you have heard that the Puritans hated Christmas, that they were the original scrooges and grinches. But this is grossly unfair to them. One of the Scottish commissioners to the Westminster Assembly, George Gillespie, a staunch opponent of the church year being used to bind the conscience, said this: “The keeping of some festival days is set up for the thankful commemoration of God’s inestimable benefits, howbeit the festivity of Christmas has hitherto served more to Bachanalian lasciviousness than to the remembrance of the birth of Christ. This ought not be.” In other words, it’s possible that a person might object to pepper spraying fellow holiday shoppers on Black Friday without rejecting the blessing of Thanksgiving. He can object to a Mardi Gras orgy without objecting to the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. He can turn away from a drunken office party without denying the Incarnation. And there was, for the Puritans, the matter of compulsion also.

Remember the words of C.S. Lewis here:

There is no understanding the period of the Reformation in England until we have grasped the fact that the quarrel between the Puritans and the Papists was not primarily a quarrel between rigorism and indulgence, and that, in so far as it was, the rigorism was on the Roman side. On many questions, and specially in their view of the marriage bed, the Puritans were the indulgent party; if we may without disrespect so use the name of a great Roman Catholic, a great writer, and a great man, they were much more Chestertonian than their adversaries (Selected Literary Essays, p. 116).

The Puritans were a people marked by joy and gladness. It was in the fiber of everything that they put their hands to. To Celebrate Christmas like a Puritan—to celebrate it like a Christian—is to squeeze out all of the joy and throw off all of the idolatry. It’s happy obedience. It’s joyful celebration of the goodness and grace of God that has been poured out on the world of men. That means lots of bright wrapping paper, hot cocoa, and loud carols.

So Advent is a time of preparation. But it is not a time of morbid introspection and navel gazing. Here are a few principles to keep in mind during Advent and going into the Christmas season.

·    Clean up. But don’t treat this as a time of introspective penitence. To the extent you must clean up, do it with the attitude of someone showering and changing clothes, getting ready for the best banquet you have ever been to. This does not include three weeks of meditating on how you are not worthy to go to banquets. Of course you are not. Haven’t you heard of grace?
·    Celebrate the stuff. Use fudge and eggnog and wine and ribeyes. Use presents and wrapping paper. Embedded in many of the common complaints you hear about the holidays (consumerism, shopping, gluttony, etc.) are false assumptions about the point of the celebration. You do not prepare for a real celebration of the Incarnation through 30 days of Advent Gnosticism. That is, you don’t celebrate God becoming flesh by flagellating yours.

Remembering your Puritan fathers, you must hate the sin while loving the stuff. Sin is not resident in the stuff. Sin is found in the human heart—in the hearts of both true gluttons and true scrooges—both those who drink much wine and those who drink much prune juice. If you are called up to the front of the class, and you get the problem all wrong, it would be bad form to blame the blackboard. That is just where you registered your error. In the same way, we register our sin on the stuff. But—because Jesus was born in this material world, that is where we register our piety as well. If your godliness can’t feel sticky fudge between its fingers, then it is not true godliness.

An Excuse for Excess?

Some may be a little nervous about all of this. It seems a little out of control, as though I am urging you to “go overboard.” But of course I am urging you to go overboard. Think about it—when this world was “in sin and error pining,” did God give us a teaspoon of grace to make our dungeon a tad more pleasant? No. He went overboard.

The first Christmas was the most lavish display of excess in the history of the world. God gave His best and He gave His all. He gave Himself to us in the giving of His Son. God prepared a banquet for hearts starving for hope and joy. The arrival of Jesus was the arrival of that joy. With His advent our sighing gave way to singing, our mourning turned to dancing, He gave us beauty for ashes, and He fitted us with a garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness. God spread a glorious feast and bids us to come and dine. Our only reasonable response is to taste and see that the Lord is good. The portions are large, the food is rich, the fellowship is sweet, and the meal is free. It’s a feast of fat things; a feast of wine on the lees. We eat, drink, and are merry because the covering has been taken away from our eyes and the veil from off of our hearts. We toast to the resurrection that says, “Because He lives, we shall live also.” We drink in the goodness of our great God. He invites us into His banqueting house where His banner over us is love. His lavish table is an expression of His loving heart; ever full and ever filling.

You can’t celebrate that with tofu.

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