Church signs on one of the main streets in Tucson, AZ tell the story of our holiday. On the Wednesday, after Christmas, five signs still advertise the Christmas Eve/Day worship services. One tells of a group that meets there, Alienated Catholics Anonymous…it was at a Catholic church. And then there is the one at a bigger church that someone showed up early in the week to change, proclaiming: “One Service Only, January 1.”
Jesus has been born, now what?
The Christian church seems to fall down and say, “no more!” “We’re tired.” No kidding. I saw what was done here on Christmas Eve.
Gone will be the poinsettias and added candles. Gone are the expectations for overflowing crowds dressed in their shimmering greens and reds. Gone are the dancers, the choir, the folk song artists, and the poet.
Take a breather, rest. We are among friends. You who come on a Sunday after Christmas, you are like a fine sauce boiled down to its richest flavor. You are those I wrote about at miningtheword.net, those who follow a law of sorts that says Sunday morning belongs to God. You are the ones who I love to hang out with, for your faith always strengthens mine.
If you are one who has come here today because of a commitment made on Christmas Eve, know there won’t be any bells and whistles today, but if you listen, you just might hear God.
Scripture is not done on Christmas Eve. It doesn’t take time to pause. In fact, it seems in a hurry to leave the manger, to get back to Nazareth, where Jesus is circumcised 8 days later. Luke has yet to reach its climactic moment–which doesn’t happen in the manger. The sheep and the donkeys are given no song to sing when Jesus arrives despite our love of “Away in the Manger.” Instead, the climax, the final songs and predictions about the baby Jesus, are given voice by a pair of faithful people, an elderly man and a woman, who happily greet Jesus in the temple.
Simeon and Anna have served the temple for many years. We are told that Simeon was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. Of Anna we are told she was a prophet, some 84 years old, and lived in the temple worshipping there with fasting and prayer night and day. Taken together, they represent all that is good about the people of God. Fred Craddock lists their traits. They are “devout, obedient, constant in prayer, led by the Holy Spirit, at home in the temple, longing and hoping for the fulfillment of God’s promises.” When Simeon sees Jesus, he became the first Christian prophet, praising God… “my eyes have looked upon your salvation.” When Anna sees Jesus, she becomes the first Christian preacher, “speaking of Jesus to all those who are looking for the redemption of Israel.” Together, they shout out: this baby, this Jesus, brings to us what we’ve been looking for all along!
Words like consolation, redemption, and salvation are drawn out of the Old Testament, the Hebrew scripture. “’Comfort, comfort, my people’ says the Lord God” in Isaiah 40, a word to those who had been under another’s oppressive rule, those who had their possessions stripped away. To console is to comfort. Redemption…my favorite image of redemption is of standing in line with cans and bottles ready to put them in the machine–that they might be remade. Redemption suggests that the current form has used up its usefulness, and a new form is required. Salvation: that which a people who understand they are in need of help–that they are in some type of trap–seek. One image holds us, another remolds us, the last sets us free.
John Calvin’s writings suggest that if it is true that we have an implant in our hearts to seek God, it is also true that we are capable of making anything into our God…or the inverse, that we are capable of making God into anything. How true that is with the one who was born a man and yet still of God. How true it is with us who don’t like to sit still enough to be held, don’t want to be remolded, and see ourselves as free when we are unattached to religion. Oh, how quick we are to model Jesus, not on the Holy Word, but on our own prejudice, our protectiveness, and our idols.
And so to a scene from a movie unafraid to deal with the sacred: Talladega Nights.
Carley (the stereotypical sexy golddigging wife of the race car driver Ricky Bobby) : Supper’s ready! C’mon ya’ll. I’ve been slaving over this for hours.
The family comes to the table, and all take hands to pray, something they are certainly not used to doing. And, in one of the most often played scenes used to show us how not to pray, we watch as Ricky Bobby, the successful race car driver bows his head and says…
Ricky Bobby: Dear Lord Baby Jesus, or as our brothers to the south call you, Jesús, we thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Domino’s, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell. I just want to take time to say thank you for my family, my two beautiful, beautiful, handsome, striking sons, Walker and Texas Ranger, or T.R. as we call him, and of course, my red-hot smoking wife, Carley who is a stone-cold fox. Who if you were to rate her [behind] on a hundred, it would easily be a 94. Also wanna thank you for my best friend and teammate, Cal Naughton Jr. who’s got my back no matter what.
Cal (Ricky’s best friend interrupts with the words he speaks throughout the film): Shake and Bake.
Ricky Bobby (continues): Dear Lord Baby Jesus, we also thank you for my wife’s father, Chip. We hope that you can use your Baby Jesus powers to heal him and his horrible leg. And it smells terrible and the dogs are always bothering with it. Dear tiny, infant Jesus, we….
Carley (interputs): Hey, you know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him “baby.” It’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.
Ricky Bobby (responds): Well, I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace. When you say grace you can say it to grownup Jesus, or teenage Jesus, or bearded Jesus or whoever you want.
Carley: You know what I want? I want you to do this grace good so that God will let us win tomorrow.
Ricky Bobby: Dear tiny Jesus, in your golden-fleece diapers, with your tiny, little, fat, balled-up fists….
Chip (Carly’s dad, the one with the bad leg that smells): He was a man! He had a beard!
Ricky Bobby: Look, I like the baby version the best, do you hear me? I win the races and I get the money.
Carley: Ricky, finish the damn grace.
Cal: I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo T shirt, cause it says, like, “I wanna be formal, but I’m here to party, too.” Cause I like to party, so I like my Jesus to party.
Walker (another man at the table): I like to picture Jesus as a ninja fighting off evil samurai.
Cal: I like to think of Jesus, like, with giant eagle’s wings. And singing lead vocals for Lynyrd Skynyrd, with, like, an angel band. And I’m in the front row, and I’m hammered drunk.
Carley: Hey Cal, why don’t you just shut up?
Cal: Yes, ma’am.
Ricky Bobby: Okay. Dear 8 pound, 6 ounce newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant and so cuddly, but still omnipotent, we just thank you for all the races I’ve won and the 21.2 million dollars – woo! (the rest of the family says “woo” too) – love that money, that I have accrued over this past season. Also, due to a binding endorsement contract that stipulates I mention Powerade at each grace, I just want to say that Powerade is delicious and it cools you off on a hot summer day. And we look forward to Powerade’s release of Mystic Mountain Blueberry. Thank you for all your power and your grace, dear baby God.
Oh, there are many uses for this scene. Don’t pray like this, a favorite of youth leaders. Jesus can’t stay in the crib forever and neither can you, a favorite of mothers whose 16 year old won’t get out of bed. But my favorite is… Jesus didn’t come here to be what we think we want, neither a ninja nor a democrat or republican nor one wearing a tuxedo shirt.
Jesus came to fulfill God’s plan, one that is described in the language of consolation, redemption, and salvation.
Luke fits the birth narrative around a well-known story of God engaging an older couple that a prophet might be born. In reading the first chapters of 1 Samuel you will meet Hannah, an old woman who after much waiting bears a son named Samuel, who she gives into the service of God (as she promised). Luke starts his narrative with Elizabeth, an old woman who is given a son: John the Baptist, a prophet. As Hannah’s part in the story ends with her bringing Samuel to Eli, the temple priest, Luke’s birth narrative ends with Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus into the temple, giving him into the hands of Simeon. Jesus belongs to the God you know from scripture. Jesus is given definition through scripture.
Luke, writing years after Jesus’ death, dares to see Jesus as the one God will use to console, redeem, and save.
And so…is this really what we need to go forward with God?
Or is this just another man with giant eagle’s wings better left in the crib while we go our own way?
C.S. Lewis argued that the part in us that cares for strangers, the part of us that would risk our lives for another, tells us of God’s existence. For, he argues, it would not follow from evolution that we would care for someone unrelated to us. Yet, those are the stories that do our souls good…those stories where self sacrifice saves another. For Lewis that is a sign that God is at work, because it is a force that stands against the natural world. Others would say it is the human spirit, and argue that we would be more responsible to not look to God but rather to develop our own selves–our humanity. Perhaps we can get beyond religion, they argue.
They imagine themselves with giant eagle’s wings.
Comfort, comfort my people, says our God.
I didn’t come here on Christmas Eve to celebrate Jesus coming into the world so I might fly on my own wings. I’m not winning any races these days. I’m not even sure where the starting line is. But when I stop and imagine Jesus, because of these gospel images, I can feel him taking my hand, leading me through the redemptive fire, that I might be free.
The Biblical imagery makes sense…with Jesus I’m consoled—he takes my hand. With Jesus I’m willing to be reformed that I might better serve God as did he. With Jesus, God is free to have the last word in my life.
God’s work through Jesus makes a whole lot more sense than anything I might conjure up.
And Luke keeps it real. It isn’t all “good news.”
Even as Simeon holds Jesus, gleefully announcing his departure, he is obliged to speak in a more ominous tone: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
I don’t imagine these words came easily. Why can’t it just be joy? Because eventually the baby cries, eventually we face the difficulty of keeping Christ alive in our world, alive in our own hearts.
Our independence fights against God’s comfort, our need to look good rebels against being reformed, and our humanistic beliefs call us to save ourselves.
This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel.
Note the order of the words: the falling comes before the rising. This suggests this is less a categorization of people into two types, than a statement that the falling is part of the cycle of anyone who chooses to follow Jesus out of the manger.
Jesus has been born, what’s next? Trouble. The right kind of trouble.
In Talladega Nights, Ricky Bobby was intent on being first because his drunken Dad said to him one day “If you are not first, you’re last.” All kinds of bad happened in his soul because that became his mantra. Then one day, his temporarily sober father turned up. Ricky Bobby looked his Dad in the eye and said with feeling “I remember you telling me…’If you are not first, you’re last. Everything I’ve sought to be is because of those words.’” Hearing this, his Dad laughed and said “that’s a stupid thing to live by, the words of a drunken man. They make no sense.”
I was reading in USA Today the New Year resolutions of CEOs of small companies. One talked about making more personal phone calls to his employees, another told about encouraging more travel for those of his company, and another about getting a stand up desk so he might exercise while working.
Jesus has been born! Are we going to allow ourselves to be defined by the failings of the past? Is the only important thing in our new year our diet, exercise, and vacation? These things do not make sense of our lives.
Are we going to get into some good old fashioned trouble by taking hold of Jesus, his purpose becoming ours…a mission to bring God’s consolation, to bring God’s redemption, to bring God’s salvation…however imperfectly we shoulder it…into our world. Come on, for Christ’s sake, let’s get into some trouble together…for such is the way of our Lord. Amen.