Samuel Davies: A Christmas Day Sermon

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December 25, 1760
Rev. Samuel Davies

"And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good-will towards men!" Luke 2:13, 14

This is the day which the church of Rome, and some other churches that deserve to be placed in better company, have agreed to celebrate in memory of the Prince of Peace, the Savior of men, the incarnate God, Immanuel. And I doubt not—but many convert superstition into rational and Scriptural devotion, and piously employ themselves in a manner acceptable to God, though they lack the sanction of divine authority for appropriating this day to a sacred use.

But, alas! it is generally a season of sinning, sensuality, luxury, and various forms of extravagance; as though men were not celebrating the birth of the holy Jesus—but of Venus—the goddess of sex, or Bacchus—the god of wine—whose most sacred rites were mysteries of iniquity and debauchery!

The birth of Jesus was solemnized by hosts of angels; they had their music and their songs on this occasion. But how different from those generally used among mortals! "Glory to God in the highest, on earth, peace, good will to men!" This was their song. But is the music and dancing, the feasting and rioting, the idle songs and extravagant mirth of mortals at this season—a proper echo or response to this angelic song? I leave you to your own reflections upon this subject, after I have given the hint; and I am sure, if they are natural and pertinent, and have a proper influence upon you, they will restrain you from running into the fashionable excesses of riot on this occasion.

To remember and piously improve the incarnation of our divine Redeemer, to join the concert of angels, and dwell in ecstatic meditation upon their song—this is lawful, this is a seasonable duty every day; and consequently upon this day as well. And as Jesus improved the feast of dedication, though not of divine institution, as a proper opportunity to exercise his ministry, when crowds of the Jews were gathered from all parts—so I would improve this day for your instruction, since it is the custom of our country to spend it religiously, or idly, or wickedly—as different people are differently disposed.

But as the seeds of superstition which have sometimes grown up to a prodigious height, have been frequently sown and cherished by very inconsiderable incidents, I think it proper to inform you, that I may guard against this danger, that I do not set apart this day for public worship, as though it had any peculiar sanctity, or we were under any obligations to keep it religiously. I know no human authority, which has power to make one day more holy than another, or that can bind the conscience in such cases. Special days, consecrated by the mistaken piety or superstition of men, and conveyed down to us as holy, through the corrupt medium of human tradition, I think myself free to observe them or not, according to convenience, and the prospect of usefulness; like other common days, on which I may lawfully carry on public worship or not, as circumstances require. And since I have so fair an opportunity, and it seems necessary in order to prevent my conduct from being a confirmation of present superstition, or a temptation to future, I shall, once for all, declare my sentiments more fully upon this head.

But I must premise, that it is far from my design, to widen the differences existing among Christians, to embitter their hearts against each other, or to awaken dormant controversies concerning the non-essentials of religion. And if this use should be made of what I shall say, it will be an unnatural perversion of my design.

I would make every candid concession in favor of those who observe days of human institution, that can consist with truth and my own liberty. I grant, that so many plausible things may be offered for the practice as may have the appearance of solid argument, even to honest inquirers after truth. I grant, that I doubt not but many are offering up acceptable devotion to God on this day; devotion proceeding from honest, believing hearts, and therefore acceptable to him on any day—acceptable to him, notwithstanding their little mistake in this affair.

I grant, we should, in this case, imitate the generous candor and forbearance of Paul, in a similar case.

The converts to Christianity from among the Jews, long retained the prejudices of their education, and thought they were still obliged, even under the gospel dispensation, to observe the rites and ceremonies of the law of Moses, to which they had been accustomed, and particularly those days which were appointed by God to be religiously kept under the Jewish dispensation.

The Gentile converts, on the other hand, who were free from these early prejudices of education and custom, and had imbibed more just notions of Christian liberty, looked upon these Jewish holy-days as common days, and no longer to be observed. This occasioned a warm dispute between these two classes of converts, and Paul interposes, not so properly to determine which party was right, (that was comparatively a small matter,) as to bring both parties to exercise moderation and forbearance towards each other, and to put a charitable construction upon their different practices in these minor articles; and particularly to believe concerning each other, that though their practices were different—yet the principle from which they acted was the same, namely, a sincere desire to glorify and please God, and a conscientious regard to what they apprehended was his will.

"Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord." Romans 14:1, 5, 6. That is, it is a conscientious regard to the Lord, which is the principle upon which both parties act, though they act differently in this matter. Therefore, says the apostle, "You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God's judgment seat?" That is, why do you severely censure him for practicing differently in this minor affair?

"So whatever you believe about these things" says he, have you a full persuasion of what is right in these punctilios and ceremonials. Then, "keep between yourself and God;" verse 22. Keep it to yourself as a rule for your own practice—but do not impose it upon others, nor disturb the church of Christ about it. It befits us, my friends, to imitate this toleration and charity of the apostle, in these minor differences; and God forbid I should tempt any of you to forsake so noble an example.

But then the example of the same apostle will authorize us modestly to propose our own sentiments and the reasons of our practice, and to warn people from laying a great stress upon ceremonials and superstitious observances. This he does particularly to the Galatians, who not only kept the Jewish holy-days—but placed a great part of their religion in the observance of them. "You observe days, and months, and times, and years;" therefore, says he, "I am afraid for you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain." Galatians 4:10, 11.

The commandments of God have often been made void by the traditions of men; and human inventions have often been more religiously observed than divine institutions! And when this was the case, Paul was warm in opposing even ceremonial mistakes.

Having premised this, which I look upon as much more important than the decision of the question, I proceed to show you the reasons why I would not religiously observe days of human appointment, in commemoration of Christ and the saints. What I have to say shall be particularly pointed at what is called Christmas-day: but may be easily applied to all other holy-days instituted by men.