A Word to Christmas 2016
On any given Sunday, but particularly around Christmas, someone is walking into a Christian church for the first time – someone who’s never been to a church service before – anywhere. That Christian church – it could be one of our churches – may have terrific music in the service; but more than likely it wasn’t the music that tipped the scale to get that person to walk through church doors. That church might have a pastor who is a dynamic preacher; but that visitor probably didn’t show up because of someone’s preaching reputation. That a church might be the biggest church in town: bigness plays a role in where a person first tries out this or that church, but bigness doesn’t explain why a person tries out “church”. That church might have a reputation for friendliness; friendliness, like bigness, influences where someone tries out church, but not why. Meaning no disrespect to NASCAR or NASCAR fans, I’m not interested in NASCAR racing – so even the biggest, fanciest, most welcoming, star-studded track in the world doesn’t draw me to a NASCAR race.
It happens in many and various ways, but moved by the Holy Spirit, every once in while a person who knows Christianity only from TV, radio, general impressions, and superficial conversations wonders to herself or himself, “Is it possible to get closer to God?” “I would like to understand Jesus; so I’ll try out a church.”
Most of us put a lot of effort into making our worship service “user friendly” – easy to follow for people who are not familiar with it. So we print out the entire service or put it all on a screen; we give instructions for standing, sitting, and where to go when. I think that most of our congregations make it fairly easy to understand and to follow the service – for even the brand-new visitor.
But that’s not the most important thing. That visitor wants to meet God – wants to understand Jesus. How do we help the brand-new visitor understand Jesus? I think that we may underestimate how difficult this task is, partly because we might not appreciate how difficult it is for us who have been Christians for a long time really to understand Jesus.
Jesus’ story is so out of sync with the American dream that I wonder if any of us – people who have never been to church before and people who have been going all their life – can adequately grasp the truth about Jesus.
“Rags to riches” – it is the American dream. It is rooted in us from the time we are little tikes. Think of the stories read to us: Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin – rags to riches.
Then we go to school and we learn about Abraham Lincoln: born poor in a log cabin – read by the light of the fire in the fireplace – and grew up to be president of the United States. An amazing story.
Then there was Andrew Carnegie – a legendary figure for the generations of my parents and grandparents. He was born in Scotland in 1835, and immigrated to the United States in 1848 with his parents. At age 12, Carnegie was an immigrant boy earning $1.20 a week. But he grew up to build one of the world’s largest steel companies and become the richest man in the world. An amazing story.
In my generation, there is Oprah Winfrey. She was born literally “dirt poor” in Kosciusko, Mississippi. She spent years shuttling between her grandmother in Mississippi, her mother and half-siblings in Milwaukee, and her father and stepmother in Nashville. Oprah Winfrey is the first African-American woman to become a billionaire. An amazing story.
Now, my purpose is not to glorify or to criticize Lincoln or Carnegie or Winfrey; all have done worthwhile things with their successes. At the time of his death, Carnegie had given away over $350 million – founding libraries and pursuing world peace. Winfrey set up her “Oprah’s Angel Network” that for 22 years funded poverty relief and development projects around the world, she has been active on behalf of Habitat for Humanity, and has supported numerous other benevolent projects, through her foundation and otherwise. But that’s not why I mention Lincoln, Carnegie, and Winfrey.
I bring them us simply as illustrations of how deeply embedded “rags to riches” stories are in our culture, and of how fully we are geared to think in terms of “rags to riches.” “Rags to riches” is part of our psyche.
But we have to see past the “rags to riches” mode in order to understand Jesus. The truth about Jesus – and the basis for our hope in Jesus – lies in that Jesus’ story is “riches to rags”.
Listen to the apostle Paul. Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).
We have to be careful not to turn Christmas into a type of great American success story: “born in a stable and went on to greatness.” No. In Jesus Christ, almighty God takes on rags: our sin, our emptiness. In love for us, Jesus humbled himself in order to reconcile us to God – we can’t do it for ourselves – he emptied himself for our sake. This is the heart of our gospel message.
If we are not overwhelmed by this about Jesus, then we don’t really understand Jesus – whether this is our first time in church or our 5000th time in church. On the other hand, as this truth about Jesus – “riches to rags” – soaks into us, we begin understand Jesus. And not only do we begin to understand Jesus, but Jesus himself shapes us. It is this “riches to rags” gospel taking root in us that Paul is fleshing out when he speaks of himself imitating Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1) and of Christians imitating the Lord (1 Thessalonians 1:6).
We shouldn’t be surprised if we gradually discover that we are a little out of synch with the American dream. That is an indication that maybe we are beginning to have the mind in us that was in Christ Jesus, who for our life and salvation went from riches to rags.
And if that someone walking into a Christian church for the first time walks into one of our churches, certainly she or he will hear about Jesus. And maybe, just maybe, if that visitor recognizes us as people who, imitating Jesus, empty ourselves for others, we will have gone a longer way in helping that visitor understand Jesus, and draw closer to God.