“The story of Christ's birth is a story of promise, hope, and a revolutionary love. So, what happened? What was once a time to celebrate the birth of a savior has somehow turned into a season of stress, traffic jams, and shopping lists. And when it's all over, many of us are left with presents to return, looming debt that will take months to pay off, and this empty feeling of missed purpose. Is this what we really want out of Christmas? What if Christmas became a world-changing event again?”
- From “The Advent Conspiracy”
Mark Twain once observed, tongue-in-cheek, that an ethical man is “a Christian holding four aces.” I think I have some understanding of what Twain had in mind when he made that observation. I’ve sat at poker table or two in my lifetime and have some grasp of the machinations of the game. There were many times when bitter experience taught me that the master of the bluff, deception, deceit, and larceny was inevitably the one who went home with other peoples’ money. The emptiness of loss also taught me that, in order to succeed at the game, I had to out bluff the master, deal deception and deceit in spades, and become as ruthless as a cat burglar. Once I mastered those fundamentals I succeeded.
What does this have to do with faith and the Christmas season? A lot, I think.
Christianity was born in simplicity. Jesus was born in the humblest of places, in a stable. It’s true that wise men (the Magi) traveled a great distance to worship him as a king. It’s true that angels proclaimed his birth in song, for those who had ears to hear. It’s true that shepherds came to the stable to honor him. But, it’s also true that most people hardly noticed, or even cared. There were a few, beyond those who did honor him, who had more sinister motives. The powerful, fearing the possibility of their power over the people could be lost, sought to kill him. To that end, they ordered the murder of “Rachel’s children.” It’s recorded that her collective cries could be heard all over the land.
Not much is known about his early years. Some traditions hold that he performed miracles to amuse his pals. What can be gleaned from the New Testament was that he appeared to be a pretty serious minded youngster. Once, when his parents took him to Jerusalem, he stayed in the city when they went home. They found him three days later, sitting with teachers of the law, interpreting the law and answering questions to their utter amazement. When his parents expressed their displeasure at not being able to find him, he told them they should have known he’d be in his Father’s house. His parents didn’t understand what he meant. Few, if any parents, in any age, would.
He left the carpenter’s shop and became an itinerant preacher when he was about thirty years old. He never pastored a mega-church. He never was dependent on a political action committee for support. He didn’t have the luxury of mass media to spread his message. He never resorted to fund raising gimmicks. His hallmarks were compassion, wisdom, and a keen eye for the needy. His ministry and message bore the stamp of simplicity. He spoke of sight for the blind, freedom for the captive soul. He sought the hungry and thirsty. He took up the mantle of service and sacrifice while the wise and powerful of his day sought temporal power and privilege. When he displayed rare flashes of anger it was clear that it was a pure, righteous anger. Toward the end of his earthly life, in Jerusalem, he beat the fire out of the money changers and drove them out of the temple area. “How dare you make my Father’s house a den of thieves,” he roared as the whip came down on the backs of the merchants.
Jesus was clearly different, in a class by himself, and the kingdom he ushered in reflected his nature. The principles of his kingdom were simple, yet foreign to the paradigms of his day and ours as well. It was a topsy-turvy kingdom where up was (is) down and down was (is) up. It was a kingdom where the valley was (is) exalted and the mountain was (is) cut low. It was a kingdom with only one entrance, a gate. Jesus offered no alternate plan. There was a primary plan; there was no secondary or tertiary. In the vernacular of the poker table, Jesus was “all in.” His detractors and enemies thought he was bluffing and asked for a miraculous sign to prove his high sounding words were authoritative. Jesus’ response was to short, right to the point. “Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.”
Was Jesus bluffing? Was he nothing more than another of those outrageous hucksters who pass through the portals of history from time to time? Was he just another Zeus or Osiris, a fable meant to amuse us? Or was he what he claimed to be?
I’ll stop there. You probably know the rest of the story anyway.
To be honest, this essay is less about him than it is about us, particularly those of us who claim his lordship in our lives.
I came to faith in Jesus back in the sixties. It was a time when a lot of us were looking for simplicity, peace, and power in our lives. The Christendom of those days reflected that longing. It was all simple. It was enough to love Jesus and to know that he had loved us long before we’d ever loved him. We seemed content to live our lives simply, waiting patiently for the time we’d see him face to face.
Then, something changed. The sixties became the seventies. Disco was in; inflation had gone through the roof. We were needy at first. Then, our wandering desires became needs. It didn’t take much after that to make Jesus the errand boy to satisfy those worldly desires. So, our prayer became, “Jesus, please give me this”…”Jesus, gi’mee this”…”Jesus, gi’mee dat.” To us, it sounded quite righteous. To our fellow players sitting around the table it sounded more like, “I need an ace to match the ones I have”…”Baby needs milk”…”Mama needs a new pair of shoes”…”Daddy needs a new bowling ball.” We’d blurred the line between bluffing and self deception.
Self deception morphed into a lust for power in the eighties. We were alarmed by the state of the world and decided we were going to fix things. We formed concerned citizens’ groups, moral majorities, and such. We’d had enough decadence. We were going to throw the reprobates out of office and start making the rules ourselves. We got ourselves galvanized around causes. We became king makers. The power we felt was intoxicating. Little did we realize that our grasping for the unclean things had made us every bit as corrupt as the lawbreakers we’d de-throned.
By the time the nineties rolled around we were absolutely drunk with power, so much so that we set about creating new visions of God and man. Mega-churches, preaching self realization, sprang from one side of the ecclesiastical wasteland. Para-church organizations were formed, with their roots entwined in lucre, using Jesus as if he were a marketing marionette, to be tugged and pulled at the whim of the organizational gurus. Not to be outdone by what they saw happening, others took to the airwaves, peddling Jesus like he was a shiny new car or Coca Cola. It was “Tell him what you want…he’s legally bound to do what you tell him” here and “Hundala kundala, send more money,” there. Still others sought to emasculate Jesus and enthrone themselves, weaving their spells with mantras like, “seek your inner god and goddess.” The masses bought it and the coffers filled to overflowing.
The page to a new millennium turned, ushering in more of the same. Powerful oratory, exalting self, continued to flow. The messages of a new age for a new man hissed across the airwaves. There were a few who sounded warnings, but their words most often went un-heeded. Dissenters were considered relics of the past whose trumpet calls were to be discarded like garbage at the end of the day. Words like service, sacrifice, and humility began to disappear from the Christian vocabulary. Then, self fulfillment gave way to full blown self worship. The cycle was complete. There was no where else to go. Man, in all his glory, sat on the throne.
This, I believe, is where Christendom in America stands today. It begs the questions. How far have we really come? Or, how deep into the pit of madness have we descended? Have we mastered the bluff so well that we can now discard God? Or, can we, given our fallen state, ever find our way back to the simplicity of the message proclaimed so long ago? – “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”