Rightly told, Christmas is a powerful story. One full of hope and good news. Not to mention power, justice and surprise. It’s a story that has the power to set the world right, to unravel denial, to startle with its beauty. It even has the power to call disciples.
On the other hand, Christmas services can be reduced to a rehearsal of seasonal cute: a sentimental story about a guiding star, shepherds and angels, a precious baby, wise visitors bearing gifts from afar, and the personal comfort of individual salvation.
With both regulars and once- and twice-a- year visitors present, the opportunity is ripe. Which story will you tell?
I remember the Epiphany sermon I preached that gave some interesting background to the story of the Magi. Where they were from, what their culture was like, and when they actually arrived with those gifts. I told them Jesus was already back home with his mother, no longer a newborn. That their encounter took place far from the shepherds and angels. I’ll never forget what Hetta, a 70-something year old, said when she came through the line to shake my hand. “I’ve been going to church all my life. I actually learned something new today. It’s been a while since I have.”
What I preached wasn’t exactly earth-shattering. But some things we can say about the incarnation of God are. At least for the church goer who is exposed only to the sentimental stories.
What might shake things up? Try these biblical messages on for size: Salvation, or communal well-being as its understood in the Hebrew Bible, is not just intended for Christians, but for all humanity. In fact, salvation is not just for human beings, but for all of creation. That means ensuring each other’s well-being is a Kingdom value. As is caring for the earth. Or this: Being a disciple of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, means to be an active peacemaker, rather than a captive to fear or suspicion. That means we can’t kill our way to peace. Or this: Jesus, the very incarnation of God, and his family were soon to be refugees, fleeing from the mad tyranny of Herod. That means shutting out strangers, aliens, and those in need is unbiblical. Finally there’s this: God risked all, placing God’s own self in the imperfect hands of mortals. That means we, as bearers of the image of God, are called to risk ourselves for the Kingdom.
The upside of sticking with the safe, feel-good story is that people feel, well… safe and good. At least for the moment. The downside is that we don’t expose them to a narrative strong enough to equip them for the risk, fear, and change in our rapidly changing and complicated world. That void makes them more susceptible to the fear-mongering and violence of the everpresent talking heads.
Fear-based violence has already given us a horrific year of domestic and international terrorism, a 14% rise in violence against Muslim Americans, the senseless killing of both young black men and cops, never-ending violence against both Israelis and Palestinians, the displacement of millions of innocent Syrian citizens, the cold-blooded killing of Planned Parenthood staff and patients, students and teachers, innocent Charleston SC church-goers and hundreds of others whose names and stories have now faded from the headlines.
What does the church, if anything, have to say about all this?
Yes, it’s safe to stick with the tried and true, the sentimental, the cute. But it’s also a missed opportunity to preach a Christmas story that goes beyond cute.
Peter Sawtell writes:
The Christmas story is one of great good news when we tell it in the context of God who is with us to transform sin and evil, to overcome oppression and exploitation, to renew community and establish right relation. The Christmas story is relevant good news when it is put forth as an absolute contrast to money and markets, to a mechanical world of objects to be used, to a mysticism that allows us to ignore suffering — and even as a contrast to a distant patriarch who doesn’t really care about Earth and all of its life.
But that Christmas story — that transformational, liberating, joyous story — needs to be explicit. In a world seduced by wealth and power, a world where the “other” is feared or used, where individualism smothers community — in our world, the Christmas story loses meaning if we don’t push the challenging message.
The baby and the cute animals can just let us feel comfortable. The gifts of the magi can be warped to look like our excessive gift-giving to ourselves. Herod can look like an isolated bad guy, instead of the face of empire. The story can be sanitized, and its transformative power hidden and denied.
Peter goes on to say that he wonders which story he’ll hear in churches this week. Me too. As I worship in a variety of churches this week, I wonder what message I’ll hear.
Personally, I’m looking for a Christmas that goes beyond cute. Like Hetta, I need to learn something new to stay engaged, to hear something new in order to grow. I want to be challenged to live a new way, a Christ-like way this year. I want to be called to wake up, to grow up, and to show up as a disciple in this complex world. I want the prayers and the preaching to be a sign that the church cares about more than “just us” but also about “justice.”
Otherwise, Jesus himself is reduced to cute—a babe who never leaves the manger. And the church loses one more opportunity to align itself with the essential Gospel message: peace on earth, good will to all.