I’ve sometimes wondered if it would be more fitting, during our Christmas Eve worship services, to distribute crash helmets instead of candles. Many of us cherish the “songs of the season” like “O, Holy Night” or “Silent Night”, but something like “Run for your Lives! Jesus is coming!” might be more in keeping with the biblical “Christmas”.
The homes in our neighborhood have strings of colored lights, Santas, reindeer, snowmen and a plethora of illuminated, inflatables. New this year, at least to me, is the “Mandalorian Holding the Child”, which Home Depot describes as “Star Wars Holiday Fun to awaken The Force.”
Before we lament (again) the commercialization and trivialization of “Christmas” and, once again, commit to “keeping Christ in Christmas”, we might want to take another look at the actual biblical accounts. Perhaps you haven’t noticed it before, but even John the Baptist wasn’t so sure about Jesus.
1After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.
2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
This passage from Matthew 11 isn’t focused on the socially shameful pregnancy of Mary, the culturally suspect relationship with her betrothed Joseph, and the disgraceful setting for Jesus’ birth in an animal shed in Bethlehem.
The birth of Jesus, of course, gets most of the attention among Christians at Christmas and rightly so. Even his birth, however, as Charles Moore points out, is usually sanitized and sentimentalized so that its disruptive nature is ignored or glossed over.
Anyone who bothers to read the Gospels knows that before the Prince of Peace ever walked or talked, he was a homeless refugee with a price on his head. Jesus’ birth was anything but a postcard image. He was a threat. The tiny town of Bethlehem was not just the inauspicious place where God’s son quietly entered the world, but the turf on which Herod’s soldiers would slaughter babies and toddlers just to ensure that his throne remained secure.Charles Moore The Scandal of Christmas
The scandal of Christmas is not the virgin birth but that God’s redemptive work defies the Herods of this world – not just kings and presidents, but anyone who clings to power and privilege….
The birth of Jesus disrupted the social, political, religious, and cultural “conventional wisdom” of his time. Seemingly, Herod the Great is one of the few who recognized this.
And so it was a Herod (Herod Anitpas, the sixth son of Herod the Great) who, when publicly criticized by John the Baptist for his immoral and illegal marriage, imprisoned John. Sometimes you just have to silence your opponents, right?
While in prison, John the Baptist heard about all the things Jesus was doing – healing diseases, exorcising demons, calming storms, authoritative teaching, restoring sight, hearing, and speech, raising the dead. These were “Messiah actions”, as the prophets had long before indicated. So, John sends messengers to Jesus to ask him, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” (Matthew 11:3).
Jesus responds by telling them to go back and tell John what they have heard and seen by listing a half-dozen of the signature marks of the Messiah. (You can check these out in Isaiah 35:4-6; 42:7,18; 61:1 and elsewhere).
But then, so neither John, nor the messengers who came with the question, nor any of us, can avoid the gravity of his response, Jesus places the matter plainly before all:
“God blesses the person who does not turn away from me / is not offended by me / does not fall away because of me.” ( v. 6). The Greek word here, translated variously, is skandalizthei. It is where we get our word scandalized.
Controversy and Conflict
Most of us have “hidden our faith” because we might be embarrassed, or challenged, ridiculed, excluded, or patronized. I know I have. Better to hide your “light under a bushel” than draw unwanted attention to yourself, right? Better to be a stealth witness to Christ, a secret agent of Almighty God, that speak up and act up because of our devotion to the Lord, right?
Well, Jesus puts it pretty straight up:
“Are you offended by your relationship with me? Would you rather turn away from me than risk the conflict or controversy that might come to you as a consequence of your devotion?” (pardon my inadequate contemporizing paraphrase).
There is something particularly worth noting for those of us who are “United Mess-o-dists”. Many of us are in the midst of denominational fragmentation and congregational conflict over whether or not to disaffiliate from the UMC, re-commit to the UMC, or maybe just conclude that following Jesus is entails more potential conflict than we bargained for. We should pay attention here that the previous chapter, Matthew 10, is the account of Jesus sending his twelve apostles to find the lost sheep among the Jewish people. He specifically tells them not to go to the Gentiles or even to the Samaritans (considered a people of “mixed faith”). Go specifically to the religious people of your own “tribe”.
Jesus tells them the outcome of their faithfulness to the gospel among their own religious community. Your own people, your synagogues and its members, will oppose you and seek to cast you out. The religious leaders will be against you. “I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves,” said Jesus (Matthew 10:16,17). And he’s describing the communities of faith of which these Twelve Apostles are already a part!
And when that happens, when there is a conflict between your commitment to Christ and your community of faith, Jesus said, there will be a choice before you.
We prefer the cuddly Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. No wonder! In Matthew 11 we find that even John the Baptist wanted to make sure his commitment to the Lord, which put him in prison, was not just an ill-advised, fundamentally mistaken, overheated bit of religious zealotry. Maybe he wasn’t courageously righteous…perhaps he was just a fool.
Maybe you feel a similar choice right now in your own faith. There is not a Herod threatening to put you into prison. And there is not a “religious court” going to run you out of church. But it is a choice of both personal integrity and eternal consequences, nonetheless. You might be wondering if it would be better to just sit down and be quiet rather than contend for the faith within your own congregation.
Here is a sobering and encouraging promise from Jesus in Matthew 10:
26 “But don’t be afraid of those who threaten you. For the time is coming when everything that is covered will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all. 27 What I tell you now in the darkness, shout abroad when daybreak comes. What I whisper in your ear, shout from the housetops for all to hear!
32 “Everyone who acknowledges me publicly here on earth, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. 33 But everyone who denies me here on earth, I will also deny before my Father in heaven.
The coming of Jesus puts a daily choice before us. Here is the assured promise:
“God blesses those who are not offended / do not turn away / to not fall away because of me.” (Matthew 11:6).
Our response to the gospel of Jesus Christ will certainly bring us to various conflicts in which our faithfulness is challenged. Here is a beautiful assurance written long ago to Christ-followers in trying times:
3 All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is by his great mercy that we have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Now we live with great expectation, 4 and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay. 5 And through your faith, God is protecting you by his power until you receive this salvation, which is ready to be revealed on the last day for all to see.
6 So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. 7 These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world.
8 You love him even though you have never seen him. Though you do not see him now, you trust him; and you rejoice with a glorious, inexpressible joy. 9 The reward for trusting him will be the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:3-9)
It’s Christmas! Come, let us adore Him!