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Thursday
Dec052013

December Theology

Some of us have not outgrown our childlike excitement for Christmas. For many of us the season of Advent brings a change in our demeanor along with a renewed sense of joy and peace. You can see a variety of reasons for this. It may be the rich memories that a person holds of Christmases past. Most of the time they are emotional memories—re-lived feelings that are prompted by sights, sounds and aromas associated with times of great joy and community. It may be anticipation of reunion with people they love. It may simply be the joy of change, for our cultural landscape is altered in November and December. Whatever the reason, it feels different.

But there is more. There is something about Christmas that causes people to look at others differently. We donate more for the poverty stricken, we make decisions about how we can help others, we try to teach our children to give and not merely receive. Charles Dickens made note of this. In his Christmas classic, young Fred says to his uncle Ebenezer…

I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round…as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.*

I must confess that I am a Christmas fanatic. My over-the-top love of the season was birthed in my childhood. My parents were not extravagant with gifts at Christmas time, but they were extravagant with experiences, traditions, family time and joy. I would wish my childhood—particularly my memories of Christmas—on anyone and everyone. But there is much more than nostalgia to my approach.

When I was in seminary, two professors had a profound and lasting impact on my life and my ministry. My theology professor, Dr. J. Kenneth Grider, and my philosophy professor, Dr. Al Truesdale, opened my understanding to the social ramifications of the gospel. Well, at least they began an opening process that has continued to this day. A child of the evangelical church, I was always taught the personal nature of salvation. But as a theological student, my eyes began to open to what Jesus meant when He said, “The kingdom of God is near” (Mark 1:15). Jesus said…

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

Words like “peace” and “justice” took on larger, deeper and richer meanings. And over time I began to realize that the “good news” was even better news than I had ever imagined it could be. No longer is the gospel simply life-transforming for me. It is world-transforming. Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). And He called us to work with him to make that a reality in our world today.

With my growing awareness of God’s plan—through Christ—for His creation, came a profound awe of the incarnation. God came to us. He became one of us. He set the new kingdom in motion by ways and means that are contrary to the old, tired ways of the kingdoms of this world. It is difficult for me to verbalize what the incarnation of Jesus Christ means to me. And that is why the annual celebration of the incarnation is simply too wonderful for me to express. When I say, “I live for this,” I’m not talking about the trappings of the American Christmas (though I love them). I’m saying I live for a deeper understanding of God’s work for us, in us and through us. That is the Jesus message. That is the power of the Bethlehem birth.

I have a theory. I think a lot of people agree with me. Though they do not articulate it, I think they see the connection between the manger and the call to be good news to the poor. I think that, without knowing it, many people—Christians and non-Christians—are motivated by a deep theological truth. When they consider the incarnated One—the One who became poor for us—it is difficult to forget the poor for whom He came. And so, because of this powerful theology of the incarnation that is unwittingly part of their December mindset, they start putting coins in the red Salvation Army buckets. They donate to Toys for Tots. They give to a local food pantry. They call a church and ask if there are any families who are in need this Christmas. And it is beautiful.

There is always a little bit of lament in January. After the college bowl games are over and dried-out Christmas trees lay by the road for pick-up, people get back to the dreariness of winter. Sometimes you’ll hear people wistfully say that they wish the feelings of Christmas could last all year. Well, if we had them all year they wouldn’t be special in December, would they? No, feelings come and feelings go, as they should.

The real problem with January is our tendency to pack up our December theology and stash it in the garage for next year. It’s tragic because it doesn’t need to happen. The power of the incarnation and the joy of working with Christ to see His kingdom come is life-giving to us as well as to the ones we serve. We live for this!

As my understanding of the gospel deepened, as I began to see that the good news was more than I had ever imagined, “O Holy Night” became my favorite carol. Every year I’m awestruck by the third verse…

Truly 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 will cease.

I’m enough of a child to believe it.

 

*Dickens, Charles (2011-03-24). A Christmas Carol The original manuscript (Kindle Locations 93-97). Kindle Edition.

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