Thursday, December 22, 2011

Missing Christmas - What Are We Waiting For?

Like many churches, my church is just about to finish a four+ week time of celebrating Advent, a time often described as one of waiting. There have been times this year when that waiting theme has puzzled me.

I recognize the importance of remembering and reliving the waiting that the people of Israel did for the coming Messiah. The meaning of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" is of critical importance in understanding God's plan. For a people whose faith centered around prophecy and the promises yet to come, the idea of waiting with expectancy is a vital lesson.

The problem is this - I don't have to wait. Christ has come, both in the bodily sense of His incarnation at Christmas and in the spiritual sense of His having come to live in my life. I can "wait" in a historical re-creation kind of way and ponder what it would have been like to have to wait for the Messiah, but I need not actually wait.

This thought about Advent waiting has led me to think that those who are still waiting for Christmas may well have have missed it. In discussing Missing Christmas, I do not mean Skipping Christmas, like the hero of Grisham's novel of that same name who desperately wants to avoid wrapping one more gift and decorating his house one more year. I can understand being fed up with the commercialization and the hoop-de-do of our Christmas schedule.

No, I am talking about those who miss Christmas, who don't get it, who are still waiting because they have never understood - never received - the coming of Messiah/Christ in the first place.

If we look back on the first century folks, we often ask ourselves how and why they missed Him. After all, they were supposed to be looking for Him. They were students of prophecy and knew their scripture. They could recite Isaiah and Micah, Zechariah and Jeremiah. They knew Messiah was coming. And then He came, and they missed Him, and they kept looking.

Our common Sunday School answer is that they missed Him because they were looking for a military/political king. They wanted the victories and the white stallions and the public homage. They were not ready for a suffering servant, much less for a baby born to an unmarried virgin in a feeding trough. They were not interested in what caught the attention of shepherds, the lowest of the low.

I think that explanation is right, up to a point, but I do not believe it goes far enough. I believe they missed Christmas for the same reason many people today miss Christmas. That reason is largely political, although not in the stallions-and-banners sense. It is not that we want military victories, necessarily; but it is that we want what is immediate, what is tangible, what is seemingly most important to our survival. To first century Israel, that meant escape from the suffocating occupation of Rome. To them, then, Messiah would be recognized in the way He threw off the Caesars. To twenty-first century Americans, it means escape from unemployment and war and inequality and unendurable political discourse. It means more money and better health and more vacation time. It means the right person in office and enough food on the table for everyone.

And, of course, there is nothing wrong with any of that. As I have written numerous times, I believe that we must be about helping the poor and feeding the hungry (here and here, for example), and I maintain that we must participate in the political process (here and here, for example). I think that seeking success is a natural goal for all of us.

Jesus, though, did not and does not come primarily to meet our political aspirations. Jesus' role was and is spiritual. To the first century people He saw, He came primarily to solve their soul's overwhelming problem. He said that He came "to seek and to save that which is lost." The angel told Joseph to name Him Jesus because "He will save His people from their sins." To the twenty-first century people He now sees, Jesus comes for exactly the same reason. We have a sin problem, a soul problem, a spiritual issue that pretermits and underlies all our other ills.

There is a new popular holiday song that you have probably heard on the radio - it plays on both religious and secular stations - called "Christmas Shoes." It tells the touching story of a poor boy who wants to buy a new pair of shoes for his dying mother. He cannot afford to pay for the shoes, and the singer/narrator tells of giving the boy the money so he can buy the shoes. The singer says that in doing so, he has learned "what Christmas is all about."

Of course Jesus is concerned with the poor and the hungry, and as His people, we must be about His work, including giving shoes to kids and sick mothers who need them. But those kind of political and social issues are not the reason He came. They are not what Christmas is all about. The visitors to Jesus' birth brought gifts to Him; they did not come looking for gifts from Him. That metaphorical Little Drummer Boy, who had no gift to bring, did not come to the manger looking for a handout.

And I think that is why people miss Christmas. When a baby is born in an out of the way hamlet and does nothing to depose the emperor, sabotage the invading armies, eliminate all poverty, change the course of elections, or add to our bank accounts, we all too often miss Him. It is not that we are unconcerned with spiritual things; it is just that we are far more concerned with the political and the social and the financial. Like our predecessors twenty centuries before, we miss Messiah because we refuse to look beyond what we have decided are the pressing issues. We think we understand the world and that we know best how to solve its problems. Buying a poor boy a pair of shoes for his mother is surely a byproduct of Christ's coming, but it is not, despite the song, "what Christmas is all about." When Jesus comes with a different perspective and a radical program - faith in the living God - too many don't or can't or won't get it. And they end up missing Christmas. They come to and leave another Advent still waiting, whether they know it or not.

Jesus is not now, nor was He ever, bound by (or really concerned about) our political agenda. Jesus is not tied to what we want or expect Him to do. He comes to be God with us. He comes to shepherd His people. He comes to reign as King, not a military victor or a source of welfare, but as Lord.

Christmas is about a Savior. You have been waiting a long time. Don't miss Him.