Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Christmas Thought - To Whom Did the Christ Child Come, and What Earthly Difference Is His Coming Making?

And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And suddenly, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. But the Angel said, “Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you in born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

Don’t miss it in its familiarity – “which shall be to all people.” Jesus came to Middle Eastern sheep herders who lived in the desert. He chose to be born to an unmarried pregnant teenager. He spent early years of His life in Egypt, of all places, Arab home of Pharoahs and haters of Israel (both then and now).

I think that is relevant to us this Christmas. This is not a blog about racism, although there may be a point there. This is not a political statement against the war on terrorism, and to hear that message in what I have to say would be a serious misunderstanding. This is not a devotional about classism, although there is certainly inherent in what I have to say a message about humanity’s equality before the throne of God. No, this is a question – For whom, or perhaps I should say to whom, did Jesus come … and to whom does He come today?

I am not trying to be politically correct here. I am asking a serious question. For all of our words about loving everyone and our songs that say
“red and yellow, black and white,” what do we really believe about God’s relationship to humanity? Eight years and three months after September 11,
knowing about the history and claims of what we know to be false religions, in a world where lovers of Jesus are very literally targets, does Christmas mean anything new?

Did Jesus come for Osama bin Laden?
Did Jesus come for Timothy Mc Veigh?
Did angels sing of good tidings of great joy to the World Trade Center terrorists?
Did Mary bear a savior for Adolf Hitler, or Pol Pot, or Stalin, or Manson, or Jack the Ripper, or Slobadon Milosovic?

Let’s move out of the headlines – did Jesus come to the gangbangers of East LA or the slum dwellers of Detroit or the loyal subjects of the Taliban or the cannibals or the communists or the Mafia?

Of course He did. That is not a hard question... at first glance. Some of you are wondering if I have anything deeper to say than simply to recite the obvious – that Jesus came for all. I hope I do. Bear with me.

Let’s get a little more personal. Did Jesus come for that guy who stops you on Sunday mornings when you get off the interstate on your way to church, the one who smells bad and asks for money? Did Jesus come to that woman you have to meet every week in your business, the obnoxious one who has no interest in the things of God but has a great deal of interest in making your life miserable? Were the tidings of great joy for the mugger who took your wallet and for the mechanic who took your money but did not fix your car and then laughed at you when you complained?


So what is my point?

If Jesus came to all those people, then what earthly difference is it making to all of those people that Jesus came? And what part are we, the body of Christ, playing in making that difference?

Hear me. I am not here to discount the heavenly difference it makes. Jesus came to earth to bring salvation. We are the bearers of good news, and through our offerings and our prayers and our cooperative ministries, we are striving to make a difference to those people. That is priority one. It always will be. I do not want to be misunderstood.

But it is not the only priority. Jesus called us, and calls us, to follow Him. We sing “Wherever He Leads I’ll Go” and “Footprints of Jesus” beautifully. Do the Pol Pots and the gangbangers and the panhandlers and the cheating mechanics of the world hear us singing? Do they see us following? Does it make a difference to them?

I am not really talking about what used to be called the social gospel. I think that our witness is, ultimately, a verbal thing. I do not think that doing good works and helping the poor and the needy is the best way to share Jesus Christ. I understand the idea of "loving people to Jesus," but I do not think it always works. I think that people are greedy and needy, and they often take what we have to offer without thinking about why we have done it, much less about asking us to tell them why we have done it. Sometimes it leads to that conversation, and praise the Lord when it does, but often, at least in my experience, our random acts of kindness are either taken at face value and appreciated for the momentary relief offered or else ignored altogether.

I certainly do not believe that we should consciously substitute doing good and being nice for giving our personal testimony about the difference Jesus makes in our own life. That is a cop out, and it is contrary to the direct instructions of the Master.

And while I am making disclaimers, let me be clear that doing good works in no way brings about salvation. It works in reverse, or it should. Our salvation should bring about good works that should make a difference in the world. In other words, the coming of the Christ child should be doing a lot of earthly good.

It has to be a priority of people who follow Jesus to be Jesus - to come to the world as Jesus comes – not for any sake other than the cause of doing good because Jesus did good and we are trying to follow Him. And we should do good to others out of love: love for Jesus and love for them.

Steven Vincent Benet’s play “A Child Is Born” tells of the coming of the Christ child through the perspective of the wife of the innkeeper, the one whose stable served as maternity ward for Mary. Through her eyes, and through the eyes of her servant girls (yes, the original Jeannette and Isabella of the carol), we see how the nativity of the Son of God changed one person’s perspective on treating everyone else. Through another character, a common dirty thief named Dismas, we hear of the countless others – called by Dismas "the vast sea of the wretched and the poor" – who wait to be touched by that child.

How can Jesus touch those people? It has to be through us. For whatever reason, He has chosen to work through the church, so much so that we are called His body. For Jesus to have hands to heal and feet to go and tongues to tell and shoulders to comfort, we have to provide freely those hands and feet, tongues and shoulders. For the world to see anything that it can call “Jesus,” it has only the option of looking at us, for we are the only body of Christ to be seen.

“If anyone would be my disciple, he must take up His cross daily and follow me.” I do not think that means simply to be willing to die for those who are already Christians. I do not think it means only sharing the message of the cross, although it assuredly includes that. I think it means that the coming of Christ must make a difference everywhere on earth. If Jesus came to the thieves and the beggars and the bothersome panhandlers and the vast sea of the wretched and the poor - and He certainly did - then we must take up our cross daily and make a difference in the world in which thieves and beggars live. It is not for me to define for you how you do that. I have no planned giving program or soup line for you to join. I write now, at Christmas time, only to ask to whom did Jesus come, and what difference is the fact that He came making to those people? I am here to challenge you to see the celebration of the coming of the Christ child as a motivation to take up your cross for the people to whom the child came.

Not because it is a way for them to become Christians, although it might be.

Not because it will get us to heaven, for it surely will not.

Not because we are secular humanists, although true humanitarians should occasionally cheer our actions.

But because we are Jesus’ church, and He came to bring good tidings of great joy to all people – peace on earth and good will to all.

The children in each diff'rent place will see the baby Jesus' face like theirs, but bright with heav'nly grace, and filled with holy light. Some children see Him lily white. Some children see Him bronzed and brown. Some children see Him almond-eyed. Some children see Him dark as they. And, ah! They love Him, too!

He came to everyone. That is elementary, at least to us. But it will not be elementary to that everyone until we let Him make a difference through us.

Surely He taught us to love one another. His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother, and in His name all oppression shall cease. May it be so.