There is an often forgotten theme of Christmas. We don't like it much. You surely don't find it in the secular celebration of Christmas which is about Joy to the World, the gifts have come. And the Savior is a round, jolly man who loves everyone and has just the right gift for each person and is pleased by our offerings of cookies and milk and promises a Merry Christmas to all and to all a Good Night! I remember a time when he used to check his list to see who was naughty and nice. Parents used to have some leverage with their kids behavior. "If you don't behave He won't come or if he does all he will give you is a lump of coal in your stocking." But not today, child experts warn us these type of threats may damgage our young ones self esteem. So in the secular Christmas, we pretend all is well, put on happy faces, even if alchohol induced, and borrow a line from Scrooge, who saw the Christmas Light and changed from stingy to generous, "God Bless You Everyone!"
Easy to overlook in all this secular spirit of Christmas that not everyone will be blessed by Christmas. At least according to the Bible where this Christmas idea came from. Christmas is a chapter in the unfolding story of God's judgment. Joy to the World mentions a curse in verse three. You might want to read Genesis 1 - 3 and maybe even chapter 9 along with a cup of Christmas tea. Something is wrong with the world. God's good gifts are corrupted. Bad things happen. Christmas tells us what is wrong and what God has done to fix it. But not everone accepts the solution. Not everyone agrees that Jesus is the Savior which his name promises him to be. Some people offer alternative saviors or other plans of salvation. Christmas is not the only option out there.
Matthew's gospel, chapter one, about midway through the geneology of Jesus, mentions King David. It is the high point of this geneology until the end. From the David point it is all downhill. David represents a heady time in Israel's history. Israel ranked as one of the great nations of the world then. It was wealthy, powerful and prestigious. No one could afford to look down on them. God had promised David a son would always reign on his throne and his dynasty would last forever. That was a promise you could take to the bank and stake your fortune on. You can read further down the list of names of David's line, the Kings of Judah. You see one biological son, Solomon, althouth there were many others. But where was this promised King like David. David's kingdom shriveled up and died in the years after David died. Go down this list of kings in David's line and it gets darker and darker. Some of these guys were outright idolaters, some no different from pagans. Some put the true prophets of God to death. There were a couple good ones in the mix but none who fulfilled the promise.
There were other kings who could have been on the list who Matthew left off. After Jehoram, Matthew omitted Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah. Their stories are told in 2 Chronicles 21 to 25. One fairly decent king bookended by two horrible ones. Read 2 Chronicles 25:14-16 to see what God thought of them. That's why we read down the list a bit further and we find these words, "after the exile". The Exile, the worst of all Old Testament bad times. A black hole in Israelite history. You may know the story. God's people captured and enslaved. The Promised Land overrun by the brutal Babylonian hordes. People slaughtered. Temple ransacked and looted. Leadership carried off. Bigger question was: " Where was God in all of this?" Was he done with Israel? Seemed like a pretty good theory at the time. Why would he stick around? Why keep his promise. Few people could see why. Judgment had come just as God had said it would through his prophets. He works his ways out through judgment. He means what he says.
Jesus is what he says, too. Herod knew that. When Jesus was only a baby Herod tried to kill him. How could a baby threaten a great King? Follow Jesus life and there always was someone or some crowd trying to do him in. They failed, the gospels tell us, because it was not his time. When it was his time you couldnt find anyone willing to stand with him.
Jesus stands for judgment, too. John's gospel after 3:16 explains that we are judged based on whether we stand with him or not, whether we believe or not. Are we on Herod's side or Judas's side or Jesus' side? Of course, no one claims Herod's side - who would want to see him killed? No one claims Judas's side - who would betray him? Even though all his friends at the time did. With Jesus there is no neutral ground. By his very presence, by what he did and said, Jesus only gives us two options. Either we say yes to him and all that he is or no. If no, then we look for some other way of salvation. The world is always looking for saviors. Will we save ourselves or will we bow the knee to the Way God chose. The only question that matters at Christmas is:" What will you do with Jesus?"
Judgment is God's word but it is not his last word. God's last word is faith. God is faithful to his promises no matter what it looks like. "After the exile," Matthew wrote in v.12. Those are important words. With God there is always an after. So we read in the Bible, "after the exile" and "after the flood" and "after the crucifixion".
With God there is an "after" for us, too. After the divorce, or after the collapse, or after the long, dry spell, after the darkness..... There were 1000 years after David until Jesus. Most of them were pretty bad times. God seemed distant and his promises unreal. Yet, Matthew 1 shows us he was busy at work, shaping his way of salvation. Isaiah 11 promises that a "shoot will come from the stump of Jesse". Jesse was the father of King David. The shoot was Jesus. All God needed was a stump. Not a finished product, not a whole person, not someone who had it all together. Just a bit of faith, a small prayer, a baby step, a stumbling start, even a half turn - its better than none at all.
After the exile, the people of God were still not there. Jesus had not come yet. But they were closer by some 70 years. Closer than ever. Salvation was on the way.
Thursday, November 29, 2007
Looking for something to do last weekend, Marcia and I went to see the one movie playing in the one theater in our town. It was Fred Claus. We knew we were not going to see a Christmas classic in the making. And it wasn't, but it was better than expected with some decent acting - certainly not their best work - by Vince Vaughn and Paul Giamatti. Vaughn plays the prodigal son of the Claus family who hates his brother because he was Mother's favorite. But one year as Christmas gets close Fred gets into some financial trouble and needs his brother's help. So he heads up to the North Pole to work with the elves on the Christmas rush. Without giving anything away, Fred saves Christmas. The film is not going to win any awards for its script or special effects or soundtrack but my wife said it had cute sets. It is a typical Christmas season release making the most of the familiar seasonal themes of our cultural celebration of Christmas. There is no mention of Christ or the church. Until the end when Christmas has been saved and all the children have the special gift they asked Santa for and scenes of happy families are shown around the tree basking in the warm glow of what we expect Christmas to be. Except, as the scenes of happy families on Christmas morn are shown the music abruptly changes from secular mellowness to Silent Night, Holy Night. It was jarring. The Holy Infant so tender and mild suddenly inserted into this scene. It was as if he was blessing this celebration of consumerism. In the midst of this totally secular display of Xmas, Christ is thrown in too. I was shocked. I don't know if anyone else noticed. At least, there was no booing. Then, I wondered why I was so shocked. This is what Christmas is today. Christ is shoehorned into our cultural celebrations. Gift giving is the main thing. We are all trying to recreate those warm family moments around the tree. Those are not bad things. Families are desperate for those intimate times. It is good to consider the needs ( or wants) of others and give of ourselves to them. But what I most took from that stunning moment in the film was that even a secular Christmas celebration needs more than a Claus or two. It needs Christ. Claus - Santa or Fred - cannot carry Christmas. We need Christ to save Christmas even when we have Fred.