The other day Matthew Turner posted these videos from The Daily Show over at Jesus Needs New PR. They feature Jon Stewart, um, “rebuffing” Fox News’ coverage of the eternal “war on Christmas”.
As usual, it was pretty funny. And, as usual, it got me thinking.
But maybe not exactly for the reasons you might think. Frankly, I could not care less if the cashier at Target says “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”. I love shopping there (it’s almost like going to a relaxing spa after you’ve been to Walmart) and whatever holiday greeting they do or do not say will not stop me from being a customer there. However a store, public building, or politician chooses to celebrate the season has absolutely no bearing on me and my celebration of Advent.
Of course, as good American Christians we feel it our “patrio-religious” duty to defend Christmas from all things “secular”. We want to make sure that “Christ” stays in “Christmas”. In some ways, that’s not a bad thing. But, this is a season to celebrate, not “fight the good fight.”
So, the questions that have been rolling around in my mind lately go like this:
Do we even know why this is a season to celebrate?
Do we understand why angels sang over the shepherds herding their flocks?
Do we really think the messianic prophecies of Isaiah, i.e. “the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”, are random Nostradamus-like one-liners with no relevant context?
Could it be that the context of those foretellings of Jesus’ birth might just flip our understanding of the “good news” of Jesus’ birth upside down?
What if the good news of the gospel isn’t simply the creation of a divine “get out of hell free card”, but a fundamental reorientation of life in the here and now?
And if that is true, yet what we call the Christian faith now is primarily about agreeing with a list of doctrines and saying a special prayer to be “saved”, then does the gospel we find in the actual Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) still matter?
If we’re objective and honest with ourselves, then I’m not sure it does. At least, not in the sense that the life and teachings of Jesus found in the four Gospels have any real, practical importance for the life of the church. If Christianity is first, foremost, and ultimately about conversion, then a gospel that heals the lame, sets the prisoner free, and gives hope to the poor and oppressed has no real relevance for the mission of the church. Not if that mission is defined by getting to heaven and getting to heaven only requires intellectual ascent.
Ironically, our situation in the church today isn’t very different from the community of faith that Jesus was born into or the climate in which Isaiah made his messianic prophecies long before that first Christmas.
Christmas today is the season of pomp and circumstance in the life of the church. We pull out the trees, hang the Chrismon ornaments, decorate our halls with garland, and light the Advent candles. Once the decorating is done it’s time for the Christmas parties, the meticulously planned Advent services, and, of course, no church Christmas is complete without an elaborate retelling of the Nativity story or at the very least a choir cantata.
By the end of it all, most of us are exhausted and looking forward to the beginning of the new year when there’s not so many important programs to plan or services to orchestrate.
The community of faith in Isaiah’s day wasn’t all that different. Granted, they were not getting ready for Christmas, but they had plenty of other festivals and holy days to commemorate and celebrate. That meant lots of feasting to prepare for and plenty of ornate temple “services” to coordinate. The time in between those festive moments was much like ours today. They had regular temple worship, community gatherings that would probably have put our potluck dinners to shame, and, I want to imagine, they found time for whatever the ancient equivalent of church softball would be.
From all appearances temple life was flourishing. Worship was devote and “services” happened regularly, holy days were celebrated, and all of it was enjoyed in the midst of a temple whose beauty rivaled anything before or since.
Into this apparently vibrant and healthy community of faith God spoke these words through the prophet Isaiah,
Hear the word of the LORD,
you rulers of Sodom;
listen to the instruction of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
“The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the LORD.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood!
Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
Not exactly what you’re expecting to hear after making sacrifices and orchestrating elaborate worship services. Imagine that your church held a special service in which they had a full orchestra or band playing the best worship songs, your choir or praise band gave their best, most passionate performance ever, the pastor’s sermon was eloquent and amazing, and the altars are full of people praying.
Then God shows up, in the form of a prophet, and says “I hate it. I mean I really, really hate it.”
Talk about a punch to the gut, and a confusing one at that. After all, weren’t they doing the things God had commanded them to do? Aren’t we doing the things God commanded us to do?
Yes, God instituted the festivals, the temple, and the sacrificial system. Yes, the people did those those things well. Yes, God wants us to come together today as a body and have church in all its various forms.
But the children of Israel made the same mistake with the law that I think we make with the writings of Paul. We both turn those things into the formula for salvation.
For Israel, they believed that all they needed to do to be “right with God” was follow the law. Today, we believe our salvation is based on a magic prayer and intellectual ascent; say the right words, agree to the right doctrines, and you get to go to heaven.
But if that becomes the full expression of our faith, we’ve entirely missed what it means to be the people of God. We’ve missed what salvation is all about. We’ve missed why the gospel is actually good news.
The reasons for this are many, but chief among them is our success. Granted most of us are not part of “the 1%”, but like ancient Israel, those of us living in the United States are, whether we realize it or not, blessed beyond imagination. Unfortunately, like ancient Israel, we’ve become complacent and numb to fact that those blessings come from God and are given to be shared with those around us.
Like our forefathers in the faith, we do a great job of putting on incredible worship services and wonderful programs, but on our way to those things we drive by homeless men living under a bridge, we go out of our way to avoid the “bad parts of town”, and we ignore the hurt and dying people we encounter in the week leading up to our encounter with the God we believe to be the source of healing.
This was the fatal flaw of ancient Israel. This is the fatal flaw of the modern church. And this is the context in which me must understand both Christmas and the gospel. For when Isaiah prophesies the coming of Immanuel only six chapters later, he is proclaiming hope and salvation for the oppressed, the fatherless, and the widows the people of God have ignored. He’s not telling Israel about their ticket to heaven. The Messiah will come to give hope and new life to people who have no place to live, who can’t afford to put food on the table, and who are generally ignored, if not oppressed by the rest of the world.
He will be what the people of Israel were meant to be. Not legalistic, worship performers, but people defined by their willingness and ability to care and love for those around them. The salvation Isaiah prophecies in the Messiah to come is not about being taken away into heaven and out of hell, it’s about redefining life in the here and now, so that oppression, injustice, suffering, pain, and death are no more.
Only in this light, can we begin to understand why a baby born in Bethlehem is a moment for which angels would come down to heaven to sing for shepherds. The world is about to be remade. Injustice, oppression, suffering and death will soon cease. Immanuel has come to bring the kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven. And this is exactly what Jesus does.
The Gospels are not simply a three part act of birth, death, and resurrection that results in a cosmic “get out of hell free card.” Though, surely that is what the good news has been reduced to. The bulk of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are spent not providing a formula for getting out of hell, but describing a Savior who embodies another way of living in the here and now, a prophet who’s message to His people is not “come down to the altar and get saved”, but turn the other cheek, love your enemies, and care for the poor, then the kingdom of God will be established on earth as it is in heaven.
Yes, Jesus talked about hell, but not as punishment for people who didn’t believe the right things. It was the destination of anyone who chose not to participate his reordering of creation. As we see throughout Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels, his good news isn’t really that focused on getting out of hell. Jesus’ news is good because those who had not been allowed to participate in the community of faith, like the Samaritans, tax collectors, the diseased, prostitutes, and sinners, could now find new life as part of the people of God.
When you’re on the other side of that equation, when you’re like most of us today who have relatively comfortable lives and don’t really want for anything, it’s hard to understand why that sort of gospel is good news. So, we replace that sort of good news with the good news that we’re going to be getting even more stuff than we already have. Then Christmas becomes something worth getting excited about again.
And that’s exactly when we need to hear the words of Isaiah once more.
So, then how do we make Christmas a time of genuine, rather than superficial good news? And how does that gospel of Jesus regain it’s relevance, not just at Christmas, but throughout the life of the church?
Well, as cheesy and cliché as it sounds, I think we could begin by actually putting Christ back into Christmas, just not in way the popular campaigns tell us to. We need to recover this moment as a time of hope and healing for a broken world. Instead of blowing all of our money on more stuff for ourselves, we should try the unthinkable and actually be Christ-like, using this time to bring miracles to families on the brink of bankruptcy, children suffering from malnutrition, or prostitutes stricken with AIDS. That is the true proclamation of the gospel and the true miracle of Christmas.
If the gospel is going to matter for the church today, then it must be about much more than conversion and getting out of hell. The good news isn’t a new set of doctrines to believe. The good news is that God has come, dwelt among us, and begun to establish His kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
So, does the gospel still matter? Yes, but only if it is the gospel of Jesus which heals the lame, gives the blind back their sight, and sets the prisoner free. If the gospel is nothing more than a list of doctrines to agree to or a prayer to be said, then it is irrelevant in the face of a lost and dying world. But if the gospel is what see embodied in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, then the good news is nothing short of world changing.
This Christmas don’t just go and “tell it on the mountain”, rather be the good news for someone in need. Be the gospel this Christmas and it will truely be a season worth celebrating.
Grace and peace,