Christmas Traditions – A Sermon on Isaiah 58 – Advent 3

Mini-sermon on Isaiah 58


There was a Christmas Cantata at the 11AM service, but this mini-sermon was preached at 9AM.



There are hundreds of Christmas traditions around the world.

Some revolve around food (congregation members shared some of their own traditions).


In Japan, people eat Kentucky fried chicken. (look it up – it’s true!).


Other traditions revolve around gift-giving.

From the web: “Christmas in Iceland involves a visit from the Yuletide Lads over 13 days between Christmas and Epiphany. Over the 13 nights, children place a shoe in their bedroom window. Each night a different Yuletide lad (fairy-like creature) visits, leaving sweets or gifts.
“In Italy, Christmas comes around again in January when La Befana (a nice old lady who looks like a bit of a witch) goes around and gives presents and treats to the kids. Just as with Santa, kids will leave a snack out for La Befana who is usually depicted as dirty and covered in soot since she enters through the chimney.”


“A late 19th Century American tradition, it all revolves a Christmas Tree decoration the shape of a pickle. For Christmas morning, a pickle shaped ornament is hidden on a branch and then the children try to find it. The finder receives an extra present from Santa or good luck for the next year.

The tradition has ties to marketing in the 1890s when glass Christmas decorations were imported from Germany. Woolworths brought in the decorations that featured glass blown vegetables. The Christmas Pickle idea was concocted to sell the product.”

(for more interesting traditions, visit: or google “Christmas traditions around the world).

Many of these traditions have SOME connection to the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus, but many of them have also emerged from unique cultural situations or from a blend of biblical stories and modern twists that often have more to do with economics than anything else.

It’s also traditional for Chrsitians to talk about the “real meaning of Christmas.”

So what IS the real meaning of Christmas?

I’m guessing there are a lot of different answers to that question, but if we consider who Jesus was, celebrating his birth is not just about presents or even just about good will and cheery feelings.

Jesus was a prophet–someone who spoke out and challenged us to change our lives.

In many way he echoed the words of the prophet Isaiah in our text today.

Our text today was written after the Jewish people had been returned to Jerusalem following the Babylonian exile.

When the exile happened, around 589BCE, the upper classes – the educated folks, the folks with power, folks with privilege were exiled to Babylon.

Several generations later, when Persian conquered Babylon, the Jewish people were allowed to return.

Most of them probably didn’t.

Jerusalem was in ruins, while Babylon had a thriving economy.

The generations that had grown up in Babylon had assimilated into Babylonian life in a lot of ways—as is true in many refugee communities, the younger generations didn’t have the same connection with the motherland that the older ones did.

But some folks DID return.

People who had maintained their Jewish traditions and remained true to their faith.

Educated people who had been studying Judaism from afar for years, carefully and faithfully following the law, even in exile, people who were just waiting for that glorious day when they could return and rebuild the temple.

Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, while the upper classes were off in Babylon, the working poor and those with less education and privilege had been allowed to stay behind.

They’d been practicing Judaism themselves – not by reading books, but by living their faith.

When the exiles returned, many of them with some wealth and resources, they basically said to the people, okay – your chief priests and teachers and leaders are back, listen up. We’ve been practicing our faith and studying it for generations in exile and we’re here to bring it back.

And the people back home who’d been in Jerusalem the whole time were like, “Judaism never left.” YOU left. But our faith didn’t. Just because we can’t read or write or buy nice clothes or hold high positions in the church doesn’t mean that we can’t be faithful to God.

It’s into this mix that the poet and prophet Isaiah arrives.

The religious leaders are talking about how pious they are, fasting and keeping the REAL traditions of Judaism.

And God responds through the words of the prophet. “You’re missing the whole point,” Isaiah says.  “You’ve had your nose in books for years, yes, but knowing the words and living the words are two very different things.”

“You’re fasting and professing to be holy, while at the same time, oppressing the people who work for you.”

“You’re missing the point. Listen.

“This is the fast that I choose for you:

to loose the bonds of injustice,     to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free,     and to break every yoke. To share your bread with the hungry,     and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them,     and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

It’s a tricky message to get our heads around.

The religious practice of fasting is supposed to be about denying our interests.

And yet, as Patricia Willey writes, “To fast while continuing to serve one’s own interest, no matter how attractive the interest, is not to fast at all. To fast and to maintain control is not to empty onself before almighty God, but simply to go on a little religious diet.

But what if on your fast day, you also fasted from pursuing your interest?,” she writes. “What if you took a sabbath from power, because others are continually starved for lack of it? What if you fasted by attending to the needs of others, even at the risk of your firm hold on your social standing, even at the risk of your own visions? Now THAT would be an act of faith even more radical than the pursuit of the exited poet’s promises, because it would be faith not in an imaginable goal, but in God alone.

Nobody can practice faith like that—nobody would WANT to practice faith like that—without believing both that there are interests more crucial than the best they can imagine and that those interests are also God’s.” (Patricia Willey’s piece, “Repairing the Breach: A Meditation on Isaiah 58” appeared in Church and Society in the Nov/Dec 1992 edition).

As we approach Christmas, we practice our faith in many different ways.

My challenge to us is to not let our traditions, religious or otherwise, be the end of the story.

To consider also what the birth of Jesus means for our lives in a larger sense.

What it means for love to come into the world.




Advent Candle Lighting


Sarah: Last week, we lit the candles of hope and peace, and we relight them today, remembering God’s promises and finding hope in our faith and in our community.

Today, we will also light the candle of love.

The Bible tells us that love is patient. Love is kind and envies no one.

Worship leader: Love is never boastful or rude or selfish.

Love is not quick to take offense.

Love keeps no record of wrongs and does not gloat over other people’s troubles, but rejoices in truth.

Love conquers all.

Sarah: At Christmas, we celebrate God’s love that comes to us in the form of Jesus, a baby who will grow up to embody what love means.

Worship leader: He will teach us to love our neighbor as ourselves and show us that love takes courage and perseverance.

Sarah: Today, we light the candle of love to remind us that Christ will be a light for love in our world and also to remind us that as the living Body of Christ, our light shines God’s love for all the world.


Let us pray…