Christmas Doesn’t Answer to our Sadness

Sadness cannot spoil Christmas. It cannot render Christmas meaningless, it cannot expose it as irrelevant, and it cannot rob it of its joy. Christmas is simply not under the jurisdiction of tragedy and calamity, for it is into this tragic and calamitous world that Jesus comes. Christmas doesn’t answer to our despair; instead, our despair must answer to the fact that Jesus has come/is coming into the world."Adoration by the Shepherds" by Gerard van Honthorst

And yet, the number of suicides is higher this time of year. We pick out gifts, hang decorations, enjoy music, and all the while many of us are struggling with a depression that is uglier than it is at any other time of the year.

This is no way helped by the drunk driver that plows into a carload of women on Christmas Eve; or the Memphis police officer murdered in the line of duty, missing Christmas with her four young daughters by a week and a half; or the Connecticut first graders gunned down along with their teachers on that very same morning.

But so often, we think Christmas must answer to these events. Some people have taken down their decorations in the past several days, and I wouldn’t be surprised if others have written Christmas completely off this year.

If only we realized that Christmas isn’t at the mercy of this current world, and of this present age. This world must answer to Christmas, and so must our attitudes and our convictions. It’s not the other way around.

How have we gotten so confused? And if it wasn’t a horrible tragedy or two, it would be something else. You all know how it goes: “I’m just not in the Christmas mood …” for whatever reason. How many times do we hear this? How many times do we say this?

It’s because of what we have made Christmas into–an opportunity for people to muster up warm feelings, a bracket of time reserved for happiness. We set as our goal holiday cheer, and we keep presents, hot chocolate, lights, and carols in our knapsack hoping we will have enough of these supplies to get ourselves there.

Here’s the problem: Christmas isn’t about how in-tune you can get with the season, or how happy you can make yourself for at least a little while. It’s not about mustering up warm fuzzies next to a fireplace, with hot cider and without any worries. If Christmas is equal to your own ability to meet your own standard of Christmas cheer and comfort, then it is of little worth, and you are missing what this holiday season is actually about in the first place.

For it is in the midst of all of this that Jesus comes. And, yes, Jesus was “born to die,” as it is sometimes put, but that’s only part of the truth. Jesus comes not just to die, but to reign. He comes, not to gather his faithful and sweep them off into heaven, leaving this world to deteriorate, but to meet us here, and to live with us here. And of course everything is changed as a result:

Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away. Revelation 21:3-4

If anything, hardship and sorrow remind us that our hope is not our own resourcefulness to make ourselves happy with presents and lights and festivities. Because when the gifts are opened and the decorations are taken down, we will remain unsatisfied. We will take a look at our world and think, “How about a rescue from all this?” We will wonder, “Why can’t we be saved from all of this?” “How about some help?” “Why doesn’t God show up??”

The irony will be thick enough to cut with a knife, because this is exactly what Christmas is about. God has shown up, does show up, and will show up. He is in charge, he is our help, and he is the salvation that we are looking for.

But, if Jesus has practically nothing to do with your version of Christmas, that’s fine. Really, it is. Just don’t be surprised that when Christmas fails you because you aren’t happy, some of us are saying, “All the more reason.” And when we fully acknowledge unimaginable grief, entering into that deep sadness right alongside you, don’t be shocked when we celebrate Christmas as if it is even more relevant. Because Christmas doesn’t answer to our sadness. Our sadness answers to Christmas.

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Why do we say “I’m only human”?

The major project I’m working on these days is about humanity. One of the key themes I’m covering is the value and dignity of humanity in light of who God has created us to be.

How often do we denigrate and devalue humanity? Some of us, particularly  in the church, tend to regard humanity as basically worthless or incapable of doing things that can appropriately be called “good.”Fred B. Craddock

I came across this passage in reading a book of sermons by Fred B. Craddock. He gives valuable advice. I think some of you need to hear this:

 Now we don’t want any of that stuff like, ‘We’re only human.’ I’m sick of that. A shortstop catches the ball without mistake 300 times and finally he drops it and somebody says, ‘Only human.’ What was he when he made the play? She bakes a cake eight inches tall, beautiful. Then the church has a fellowship dinner so she wants to outdo herself. She makes one, looks like the sole of your shoe. ‘Well, I’m only human,’ she says. What was she when the cakes were eight inches tall? When the singer climbs the silver stairs and leaves every note as clear as the morning dew, what do people say? ‘Oh, that was wonderful.’ If her voice cracks, ‘Well, she’s only human.’ Why, why, why do we say we’re human when we make a mistake? Weren’t you made in God’s image? Don’t ever say, don’t ever say, ‘I’m only human.’ When somebody says, ‘That was beautiful,’ you say, ‘Well, after all, I’m human. When somebody says, ‘Best I’ve ever eaten,’ you say, ‘After all, I’m human.’ When somebody says, ‘That was a beautiful prayer today,’ you say, ‘Well, after all, I’m human.’ Would you do that? (The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock, 36)

The Question of Faith in the Bible

In the first chapter of his great letter to the Romans, Paul takes issue with those who by their ungodliness and unrighteousness “suppress the truth” (v. 18). For though “what can be known about God is plain to them because God has shown it to them,” (v. 19) they “did not honor him as God” (v. 21) but “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (v. 25).

How many times have we read this text as if Paul is tackling the problem of atheism, in spite of the fact that such a conversation in Paul’s day would hardly have been relevant? Sure, there probably was the occasional skeptic who doubted the existence of any deity whatsoever, but for the most part, the gods were a given.Rome

Not so today. Now the question of faith is often centered on the idea of God’s existence itself, and is so often articulated as if it is the end-all, be-all. “Do you believe in God?” one person asks, as a way to check whether or not someone is in the right place spiritually. “You know, he doesn’t believe in God,” mutters one person about another. If he would only believe that there is a God, then he would be set.

This is not at all where the ancient world was, and therefore it is not where the ancient texts of the Bible are either. We post-Enlightenment folks tend to portray Paul here in Romans 1 as arguing that it’s obvious that God exists because of, say, the complexity of the universe, or the fine-tuning of the moon’s gravitational pull on the earth, or something.

However, as Luke Timothy Johnson reminds us, “Paul is not engaging here in a post-Enlightenment argument for the existence of God ‘from design.'” Why not? Because, Johnson says, “His starting point is completely different” (Reading Romans, 33).

Johnson elaborates,

“After the Enlightenment, the existence of God seemed like something that was not in the least obvious and required demonstration. For Paul, as for most humans who have lived in the world, the religious sense of the reality of God is obvious, simply from the fact of existence itself. The existence of God is not the goal of reason; the existence of God is the premise for right reason. God is not what is left over after everything else has been accounted for; God is what enables everything else to be accounted for” (33, emphasis mine).

What Paul is talking about here in Romans, then, is what Johnson calls the “absolutely critical distinction between knowing and acknowledging” (34).

One of the most valuable lessons I have learned at the intersection of my personal struggles and my study of the Bible is that the question of faith in the Bible is not “does God exist?” but rather, “are you going to be faithful to this God?”

During some rough seasons of doubt, I staunchly believed that if God would just do an overt miracle before my very eyes, the problem of my faith would be solved! If a healing of a paralytic or fire from heaven would make God so intensely real to me, then I would pray with endless fervor, live extremely sacrificially, and, probably in the end become the greatest Christian the world has ever known. Of course.What was God waiting for, then?

Thankfully, the epiphany that eventually came almost knocked me over. The question of faith in the Bible, I realized, is not about believing in the existence of a god, but about being faithful to this God. Time after time, biblical figures are practically certain that the God of Israel exists. It would be hard not to think this in light of some of the undisguised ways this God makes his existence known at times. However, they still fail to really believe in him, and that is the problem. Here we have the central conflict for Israel, and the continuing conflict for the human race. It is faithfulness to God that we need, and it is faithfulness to God that Jesus Christ accomplishes and exemplifies for Israel and the nations.

Notice that when the Bible picks up in Genesis 1:1, God is already and simply there. When the Bible ends at Revelation, God has always been and forever will be, there. In the meantime (“in the now time,” as Paul puts it) the main question posed between Genesis 1 and Revelation 22, is directed at humanity. And this question has not simply to do with the human ability to know that God is, but the human responsibility to acknowledge that we are his.

“The heavens declare the glory of God,” sings the Psalmist (19:1). This doesn’t mean, as it is so often thought, that the heavens are shouting “God exists! God exists!” or even worse but probably more true to fashion, “Some sort of generic God exists!” Rather, in their declaration, the heavens reflect the special nature and the particular glory of their Creator. This is the God who argues with Abraham, who rescues Israel from Egyptian slavery, who enthrones David, who establishes justice and righteousness, and who makes himself known in Jesus. This God does not create humans just to believe that he exists (as if that accomplishes much of anything in itself), but who creates humans to fulfill particular tasks as his vice-regents, his image-bearers, his priests to and for creation. We are his poiema, his crafted piece, Paul tells us, created for good works which he has arranged for us (Eph. 2:10).

We become the people we are meant to be, not when we have the right idea about the question of God’s existence though it is of course, a start. Rather, we become the people we are meant to be when through our acknowledgement of this God we commit ourselves to him and to his callings on our lives in faith. And, as I’ve heard it said, faith is not about what. Faith is about who.

Augustine and Advent

Christmas isn’t just a single holiday day on the traditional church calendar but rather the entire season of Advent, which has just begun and will lead us to the coming seasons in this new year. Here is a portion of a sermon from the great church father St. Augustine on this First Sunday of Advent.

“Man’s maker was made man that he, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at his mother’s breast;St. Augustine

that the Bread might hunger, the Fountain thirst, the Light sleep, the Way be tired on its journey;

that Truth might be accused of false witness, the Teacher be beaten with whips, the Foundation be suspended on wood;

that Strength might grow weak;

that the Healer might be wounded;

that Life might die.”

~ St. Augustine, Sermons 191.1