Pastor’s Perspective. . .
No matter how many times we tell ourselves that Jesus is the reason for the season, reality intrudes upon us to make it clear that Christmas is more about what is happening in the market than it is about what occurred in the manger. And no matter how much we ratchet up the enthusiasm for the miracle of Emmanuel or “God with us,” Walmart and Target always seem to be louder and prouder concerning what they have to offer.
For the Church, Christmas is about the PRESENCE of God in Jesus Christ. For the world it is all about the PRESENTS, and let’s be honest, what really makes our kids glow? When given the choice we will always choose Santa’s sleigh over Christ’s crèche. Which is why the same people who complain about having to get up for the 10 am worship service can be found on line at the local Best Buy at 5 am on Black Friday. In our long existential slide toward paganism, the last thing that we surrender is the cultural trappings of our once vibrant life-giving faith.
This is what the culture warriors are clinging to as they grouse episodically about the war on Christmas. The annual rhetorical conflict usually consists of retail clerks offending happy Christian shoppers by saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas or some other such nonsense. Those who continue this jingoistic jihad are under the illusion that the responsibility of the Church to share the gospel would be satisfied if only the market would offer a simple sacrifice to our God and then politely move along for the remainder of the year. One cannot help but recognize that the 21st Century culture warrior shares much in common with the culture warriors of the 2nd and 3rd centuries who sought to compel Christians to offer sacrifice to the gods of Rome in order to somehow recapture the glory days of Rome. Lost in this battle is how a single life would be transformed by a compulsion to recognize a holiday that has already overshadowed the relevance of God’s holiness presented to us in Jesus Christ.
The conflict concerning Christmas is much more serious and important for the Church than the words that we utilize to replace “thank you, come again” during the final two months of the year. His presence is intended to change us, to turn us away from the ways of the world and toward the ways of God. Sadly the enculturation of a market driven Christmas has cloaked the transformative presence of God with a blanket of tinsel and wrapping paper, leaving us clinging instead to the presents that so typify the season.
To fully understand the meaning of the Christmas story one must remember the story of God and God’s people. We must begin by recognizing that the people of God did not always consider the presence of God to be either near nor comforting. In fact before the advent of the Christian age, the presence of God was seen as distant and something to be fearfully approached. The presence of God was not experienced as the warmth of the hearth, but as a consuming fire.
In the ancient Jewish world God was distant and frightening to most people. The God who created us to be walk with God in the garden, had become separated from us due to the Fall and the subsequent sinfulness of humanity. The God that Noah experienced sought to destroy the very work of God’s own hands. The God of Abraham called him to leave family and friends Page 3 Church Life to journey far from home toward a promise that took decades to see even partially fulfilled. By the time Moses stumbles upon God’s holy mountain, he encounters the fire (a dangerous primal example of power) of God and is instructed to remove his shoes and proceed with caution. In later years, Moses will lead an army of newly freed slaves back to this mountain (once again following the ‘fire’ of God) and receive the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the sacred Law of God. These tablets are secured in a sacred case (famously known as the Ark of the Covenant) and placed in a tent (the tabernacle) amongst the people of God.
It was in the tabernacle and in the presence of the Ark that the power and presence of God resided. It was a powerful and dangerous presence. It led God’s people into battle and called them to sacrifice in its presence. The Ark of the Covenant and the presence of God therein was so powerful that even accidently coming into direct contact with it could result in death for the one who touched it.
The Ark of Covenant rested in the tabernacle for generations and over time it occupied its own place in the world, separated from the daily life of the people. God was once again experienced as a remote presence throughout the community of faith. Interestingly, by the time of David, the presence of God resided far outside of the city. The presence of God was a destination, not something that was regularly enjoyed. It was only during King David’s reign that the presence of God entered the holy city of Jerusalem, and it wasn’t until the reign of Solomon that the presence of God inhabited a fixed place of worship, with the building of the Temple.
When Jesus Christ was born of Mary in a manger of a Bethlehem inn, the presence of God was once again remote and frightening. The temple, though magnificently built, was missing the once essential Ark of Covenant, and the presence of God was debated by both the people and the priests. The people of God begged for the true presence of God to be a part of their daily lives.
This was the gift of Christmas. Emmanuel. “God with us.”
Like in the days of the Temple and the Ark of the Covenant, the presence of God was localized. It was located in a real place, now in-fleshed in the Christ child. Once again pilgrims sought out the presence of God and made a pilgrimage to the sacred space of God’s presence. They offered worship, they offered sacrifice, and would be willing to risk their lives and offer their most prized possessions just to encounter the presence of God.
Over time this child would grow in stature and wisdom. He would present to us the good news of the Kingdom of God, even as He revealed Himself to be its long awaited King. But His Kingdom was not yet of this world and he died as an offering to God in the presence of the people, not only of Israel but of the entire world. It is fashionable to say that Jesus Christ was the true Christmas present given by God, but it would more accurate to say that the gift of God in Jesus Christ was God’s true presence. This presence has endured, through the work of the Holy Spirit in the presence of the gathered body of Christ, the Church. In fact the coming of the Holy Spirit has proved to multiply God’s presence.
It is this that we celebrate at Christmas time. God has sent to us God’s presence. It is revealed and experienced in the Church, the gathering of God’s people, and shared with the world through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Here is my Christmas prayer for you and our world. I pray that you will experience God’s presence in the gathering of God’s people in worship. I pray that you will invite God into your daily life through the salvation of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. I pray that you will share God’s presence with the world as you walk in the fire of His Spirit and bless those whom you encounter.
Merry Christmas, Pastor Dan