It was a Christmas service a number of years ago. My daughter, Amanda, reflecting on all the nice music and singing, then she noticed there was a decorated Christmas Tree with (probably fake, empty) wrapped boxes scattered around the base––very much out of place in a church, but nice. Quaint. But not an image of the original Christmas story.
Yet, we continue to underestimate our unbelieving neighbors and friends. We can often dismiss the possibility that, in their own way, they might actually be seriously seeking answers—ultimate answers about life, faith, and death. Often, it is one particular version of Christianity that is rejected as the place to discover the answer to their seeking questions.
Christian sociologist Os Guinness writes that to the believer Christianity “was once life’s central mystery, its worship life’s most awesome experience, its faith life’s broadest canopy of meaning . . .” But, today, he laments, no matter how passionate or committed an individual believer may be, Christianity often amounts to little more than a private preference, a spare time hobby. For serious seekers, such spare-time faith is not a solution to their deepest needs. Christianity must be more than a cozy warm blanket, something more ultimate to raise one up above one’s needs.
Amid the glad tidings often associated with the Christmas story is an oft-missed dose of “reality” etched into biblical scene. Along with shouts of exultation from shepherds, homage from wise men, angels praising God, there is another voice often missed:
“a voice heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children…refusing to be consoled, because [her children] were no more” (Matt 2:18).
These are strange words coming in the midst of this joyous occasion. Yet, they are a reminder that lament and despair grip the human experience.
The first time we meet Rachel is that wonderful moment when she thought she would be marrying the love of her life, the OT patriarch Jacob. But the story turns quickly to despair: Her father tricks Jacob into marrying Leah, Rachel’s older sister, first. Making matters worse, Leah has eight sons as Rachel remained childless; and, then, we hear her weigh the depths of her barrenness. God eventually takes Rachel’s reproach away by giving her a son, Joseph, Israel’s future deliverer. But, while giving birth to her second son she hears news that Joseph, her first-born, had been murdered. We, then, learn that “Rachel began to give birth and had great difficulty” and reflecting on her anguish, she names her new son “trouble” (Benjamin) and dies and is buried by the roadside on the way to Bethlehem. The roots undergirding the story, as well as the original Christmas story in our Gospels, are surrounded by the swing between gladness and suffering, between hope and despair. The realities of life.
The original Christmas narrative—the one that is inspired and finds a place in Scriptures—forces the reader back to the Rachel story, compelling us to include lament in the Christmas story. Certainly the Gospel writer wants us to know that God has sent his only begotten Son to be the deliverer of all mankind, the ultimate Joseph. Yet, Rachel and her cry seep into the first Christmas story. We need to know that despite joyous strains elsewhere, some refuse to be comforted except only by God’s own intervention.
The Gospel story is pictured in Rachel’s cry, that is, of God’s Son ending up on a cross, rejected, and dying the cruelest of deaths. The reality of life, its pain and often unfairness, demand that one must turn to the God of Golgotha, that lonely hill where hanging between two thieves, the innocent Lamb of God was slain, who alone can provide the relief, the comfort we deeply need; not simply mere sentimentalism, a Hallmark Card, or a “spare-time” religious experiences. No other hope other than God’s work in Christ can penetrate our neighbor’s or our own deepest hurts or pierce our loneliest moments, or lift us above our needs.
Amid the tinsel and cheerfully wrapped presents, let us remember Christ’s birth wasn’t to increase retail, but to bring good news that would meet the deepest needs of the human experience. Our unbelieving, skeptical friends and neighbors deserve no less. And in this, they might find the real Christianity, and the hope they long for.
I am accused of being a Christmas curmudgeon, a grumpy older man who is down on Christmas cheer . . . I get it . . . some might even be thinking to themselves, “When is he going to talk about the joy of Christmas?”
Well, I get we need joy.
I had a great childhood and Christmas for me was marvelous, incredible . . . my childhood stepfather (as some of you know) was the heir of a Toy Company, the Gotham Steel Toy Company in fact . . . and I received amazing Christmas presents! I was a very popular neighborhood kid at Christmas time.
So, I get it. Christmas is supposed to be this wonderful, joyous, marvelous time of year.
But . . .
I am no longer that privileged child. I no longer have the luxury to think as a child. This season for many is a reminder of what is lacking, that someone is missing; a time of shame, loneliness, heart-brokenness . . . and everywhere one turns they are told that they should feel joy . . . even at church.
Yes, the original story has joy it in . . . but this is no commercial, consumer joy, or joy induced by decorations and nice music and great deals at Target. Yes, Elizabeth is told she will have “great joy” at the birth of John . . . but this “joy” is because her childless-shame would be finally taken away. Yes, as in our text this morning, the wise-men from the East have joy in seeing the Star, but we forget this is in the midst of a story about an jealous King who declares treason on this babe born outback in a stable, a story that ends with the slaughter of innocent children two and under, a story of exile and running away to seek safety in a foreign land.
The real Christmas story is far closer to the reality of so many populations of people on this plant, the bottom-billion, than the commercial one we are surrounded by and the one presented by us in church. Frankly, the poor homeless on the street, under the bridge, off in a corner seeking shelter from the elements have more in common with the original Christmas story than most of our resources-rich Christmas experience. And strangely, us, churches often harness the commercial version and Christmas consumerism to get people into our buildings at this season, when it is the original story they need, need for life now and for their soul, for there is eternity at stake in this original Christmas story.
Part 2 tomorrow . . .
When the cliché is used, “Wise men still seek Him,” an accompanying question should also be considered, “and where do wise people find Him?”
The pageantry of American Evangelical Christmas tells us he, that is Jesus, is found amid the sparkle, high energy, glitter of showmanship, and architectural theater often called “at a church's Christmas service” (or Christmas season special event).
The wise magi of the East sought Jesus, the new king indicated by that eastern star, first in the king’s palace (i.e., Herod’s palace). Although a natural and, perhaps, expected place for them to look, they were wrong, nonetheless. What they found, instead, in that palace, where power is expected to reside, was the new-born king's betrayer and usurper.
“Where” they actually found Him—per Matthew’s Gospel, which is a reflection on God’s Word through the prophet Micah (chapter 5)--was amid the weak, poor, insignificant, small little town of Bethlehem, for which the prophet told us, didn’t amount to much. (It couldn’t even raise enough soldiers to protect itself—a point of the Micah 5 passage). Wise people might still seek Him, but if and when they do, they are only truly wise when they seek Him in the place of insignificance. And, this new king is, following the Matthew 2 story, found where there is (at least the potential of) death and destruction to follow, for we read, as a result of the wise magi's visit to the palace, Herod ordered the slaughter of all the male two-year-olds and under (I assume in and around Bethlehem) in order to prohibit any potential insurrection to his power.
Where are you seeking Jesus, the Messiah, born King, who will usurp all competitors to your allegiance? It matters where you seek Him, for where you find Him matters—for finding him puts everything at risk, for the powerful, elite, and the affluent-dependent, even the christendom-dependent, will seek to stop this humble king from disturbing their power, from taking their possessions (and don't be fooled, you are their possession). Those in power will most assuredly attempt to stop him from destroying their reign over realms under their control (and don't be fooled, you are under their control). Perhaps, this is why the original Christmas story and the post script of those seeking long ago from the east is told: Jesus, heaven's king, sent by the Father of all creation, is found where all is already lost, marked for death.
Where do you find the new born King?
Think more deeply about Christmas.
Think more deeply about Christmas: Power is never a friend to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Never. Ever
King Herod's role in the Christmas narrative reminds us: Don’t be fooled by power’s kindness. Nor, should we be deceived or taken captive by power’s rhetoric that simulates our faith or about its care for all of humankind.
Herod’s words from Matthew's Gospel remind me of how Paul Johnson concluded his book, Intellectuals:
Those with (and/or in) power, whether thrones, government (elected, junta, coup d'état, or inherited), or even the powers that are exercised through business do not take challengers to their power lightly. They give the allusion of love for humanity and, too often, feign worship to disguise their real intent: control any possible insurrection of their power. Both Christians on the right and the left should be aware of this bent of power's intentions.
Power is never, ever a friend to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Never. Ever.
Think more deeply about Christmas.
Chip M Anderson is the author of Wasted Evangelism: Social Action and the Church's Task of Evangelism. A deep, exegetical read into the Gospel of Mark. All royalities go to support his church planting ministry in the Hill community of New Haven, CT. The book or its e-formats can be found on Amazon, Barns'n Nobel, (and most other online book distributors) or through the publisher, Wipf & Stock directly.
While Christians are lulled into the gladness and glitter of this highly commercialized and consumer-oriented season, not a day goes by without a wave of human tragedy crashing in on our souls, whether personally or through talking-head news, social media, or on the front pages of our news rags. Yet, we persist in counting this season as one of joy and good cheer Furthermore, we take our annual offense at church outsiders for taking the "Merry Christmas" out of our sacred season.
Nonetheless, Christians underestimate our unbelieving and unchurched neighbors and friends. We dismiss the possibility that, in their own way, they might actually be seriously seeking answers—ultimate answers—about life, death, faith, and God. Often, however, it is our particular version of Christianity that has been rejected or held in suspicion, not the biblical one presented in the pages of our New Testament.
Sociologist and Christian author Os Guinness writes that to the believer Christianity “was once life’s central mysteries, its worship life’s most awesome experience, its faith life’s broadest canopy of meaning . . .” But, today, he laments, no matter how passionate or committed an individual believer may be, Christianity often amounts to little more than a private preference, a spare time hobby. Such a faith and church experience is insufficient for our time—insufficient for our unbelieving neighbors.
Our modern version of Christianity and, in particular at this time of the year, the contemporary Hallmark Card version of the Christmas story, is significant when we consider how non-believers view the church and its message. For serious seekers, such spare-time faith is not a solution to their deepest needs. Christianity must be more than a cozy warm blanket; something more ultimate to raise one up above one’s immediate and very felt needs.
Amid the glad tidings often associated with the Christmas story is an oft-missed dose of “reality” etched into the biblical scene. The original story of the Savior's birth was accompanied, grievously, by the slaughter of innocent children.
“Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi” (Matt 2:16).
Along with shouts of exultation from shepherds, homage from the Magi, and angels praising God, there is another voice we need to hear:
These are strange words coming in the midst of this joyous occasion we call Christmas. Yet, they must be heard, a reminder that lament and despair grip the human experience.
The first time we meet this Old Testament character, Rachel, is at that delightful moment when she thought she would be marrying the love of her life, the young patriarch Jacob. But the story turns quickly to despair: Rachel’s father deceives Jacob into first marrying Leah, her older sister. Then, as the story continues, to make matters worse, Leah has eight sons as Rachel remained childless and we hear her wail the depths of her barrenness. God eventually takes Rachel’s reproach away by giving her a son, Joseph, Israel’s future deliverer. But, while giving birth to her second son she hears news that Joseph, her first-born, had been murdered. Upon receiving this news, “Rachel began to give birth and had great difficulty.” Then, reflecting on her anguish she names her newest born son “trouble” (Benjamin) and she dies and is buried by the roadside on the way to Bethlehem. (Yes, that's right, Bethlehem. See the Christmas connection!). Rachel’s story, as well as the original Christmas story, is surrounded by the swing between suffering and gladness, between despair and hope. The very realities of life.
The gospel story is pictured in Rachel’s cry, that is, of God’s Son ending up on a cross, rejected, and dying the cruelest of deaths. The reality of life, its pain and often unfairness, demand that one must turn to the God of Golgotha, who alone can provide the relief, the comfort, not simply mere sentimentalism or “spare-time” religious experiences. No other hope except God’s work in Christ can penetrate our neighbor’s deepest hurts or pierce their loneliest moments, or lift them above their needs.
Amid the tinsel and cheerfully wrapped presents, let us remember Christ’s birth wasn’t to increase retail, but to bring good news that would meet the deepest needs and light the darkest space of the human experience. Our unbelieving, skeptical friends and neighbors deserve no less. And in this, they might find the real Christianity they need and the hope they long for.
Just saw a rather good tag line in a meme: "Is there room for me in your Christmas?" Yes, I know a cliché, but this time there is valid application. I sure like this Christianese cliché more than the other-ad nausea-one: Jesus is the reason for the season--and here's why: Of course the original Christmas story teaches us somethings about the Christ, the second person of the trinity, the Son of God become flesh (very very important stuff), but these texts are to help us understand the nature of redemption--the gospel--and the purpose of the church. So who we are as church is to be lifted from this story. So, here goes:
"We are the reason for the season."
Not only did Jesus come to save us (i.e., the reason for the season), but we are Christmas to the dying world. And, I am wondering if all our attempting to follow the retail and commercial world in our presentation of the Christmas story has taken us away from our role in all the gospel.
As for the other meme quote, "Is there room for me in your Christmas?" is so relevant a question for the church, the local church. There are so many people (do I really need to list them for you?) that are wondering about just this with regards to our churches. What, really, whom don't we have room for "at church"? Not only has retail highjacked Christmas, in some way the church has as well made retail our bottom-line; making it exactly the same as retail version to grow our churches, up-contributions, and make us feel all warm for this holiday season.
Here's the rub: What does our way of "doing church" (and doing Christmas) suggest or teach others for whom we do and do not have room?
Think more deeply about Christmas this year.
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.