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).
“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)
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 original Christmas narrative—the one that is inspired and finds a place in Scripture—forces the reader back to the OT Rachel story, compelling us to also include lament in our own Christmas stories (as does Luke's rendering of Mary's Magnificat) . Certainly the Gospel writer wants us to know that God has sent his Son to be the Deliverer of all mankind, the ultimate and final Joseph. Yet, Rachel and her cry seep into the first Christmas. Jesus is the answer to her cries and that grave on that road to Bethlehem. We need to know, despite joyous strains elsewhere, some refuse to be comforted except by God’s own intervention. This is the real Christmas message.
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.
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