Okay, look out. Gary, the curmudgeon, is in the house.
I realized that it’s a terrible cliché of the Christmas season to complain about the way human beings observe the Christmas holiday. And the Church has been doing that for centuries. At least from the Middle Ages onward, you find examples of the Church trying to put the brakes on all sorts of community Christmas celebrations.
More recently the Church has made a habit of complaining about how commercialized our ways of celebrating Christmas have become. But those complaints have been said and said, and even though I pretty much agree with them, I don’t think I can add anything that hasn’t already been said about the gross, economic capitalization of Christmas.
No, actually, I want to be much grumpier and more curmudgeonly than that. I want to complain about how we’ve turned Christmas into a warm, fuzzy, cozy, heart-warming saccharine fest. Yes, the nativity of God Incarnate in Bethlehem does have a message of joy and hope at its core. That’s true. But the Bible wraps that core of joy and hope in a very hard-edged and thorny swaddling blanket.
But before I get into that tough message of Christmas, I want to try to shake some of the warm cozies out of your Christmas and get you a little bit off-balance. So, let me digress for just a minute about the traditional nativity scene in Bethlehem.
I am entirely convinced from the Bible that Jesus was not born in a stable or a cave. He was born in someone’s house. The word “inn” does not appear anywhere in the original Greek of Luke 2, and there is certainly no innkeeper. Luke does mention that the “guestroom” was already occupied, implying that Mary and Joseph were staying in the family living quarters with their host family when Jesus was born. He was then, it seems, placed on a bed of, we assume, clean straw in the feed trough that separated the human living quarters from the animal quarters in a typical Middle Eastern peasant home of that time. Okay, did I shake things up there a little bit for you? Maybe I’ll go into the details of why I have these weird ideas about the Nativity sometime in July when you’ll likely be more willing to actually listen to those details.
Okay, here’s the hard-edged, thorny truth about Christmas. The manner of Jesus’ birth—really the whole life, ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus—is God’s effort to take a sledgehammer to human pride, arrogance, self-assurance, and status-seeking. In Jesus, God mounts a fierce attack on our human love of prestige and power. Christmas is God’s declaration that if you think that it’s important to be rich and famous and powerful and a winner in the world’s eyes, then you don’t have the mind of God, and you’re standing outside the kingdom of God. What God announces through the birth of Jesus is that the gentle and the humble—the meek—will inherit the earth. Check out Matthew 5:5. And that is plainly what Mary thought also. Listen:
[God] has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty. (Luke 1:51-53 ESV)
“The rich he has sent away empty”—the true message of Christmas.
Now, really, I’m not trying to ruin anyone’s warm, fuzzy, family time here at Christmas. We need all the opportunities we can have to build our family relationships. But let’s not hide the true message of the birth of Jesus in the process.
In these times, as in so many times throughout history, Christian people have fallen in love with this world’s power and prestige, wealth and privilege. So much of the Church, especially in America, has convinced itself that God wants us to get the levers of power into our hands so that we can force the rest of the world to do what we want. We’ve gotten the idea that God is calling us to dominate our neighbors instead of serve them. But we can only think that if we turn Christmas into something that it’s not—a warm, fuzzy, soft message.
So, as you celebrate Christmas, remember what Jesus himself said about why he came into the world.
And Jesus called [his disciples] to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45 ESV)
That’s what the baby of Bethlehem, Mary’s son, says about his life and ministry, including his birth. That’s the message of Christmas. The followers of Jesus are called to serve and not to lord it over anyone.
When you hear Christians saying that in order for God’s purposes to go forward in the world Christians need to gain control of this world’s power and prestige and privilege, remember the real truth of Christmas. Remember the power of humility, of gentleness, of service, of self-sacrifice, of love. Remember Jesus.
The apostle Paul explains this in 1 Corinthians 1:25-29. We end with this.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (NIV)
An infant born to an unmarried couple in a backwater village, celebrated only by peasants and foreigners, a king enthroned on an imperial tool of degradation and death, wearing a crown of thorns that was intended as a humiliating joke—this is the power of God and the wisdom of God. This is the one in whose footsteps we are called to walk.
© 2021 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.