A Contamination of Christmas
Frederick Buechner once described Mary giving birth to Jesus in this way: "squatting there in the straw with her thighs wrenched apart, while out of her pain she dropped into the howling world something that looked like nothing so much as raw beefsteak: who was the one the angel had said was to be called Holy, the Son of the Most High: who was the Word itself fleshed with - of all flesh - hers."
Did he just say that? Yikes! I would count it too crude of a way to talk about our Savior if it weren't for one thing - it is entirely fitting! That's the point of Christmas, that God made himself into nothing - a squalling, naked, squirming child. The flesh that we have corrupted, he clothed himself with. Through the agonizing, somewhat traumatizing process of childbirth that has been cursed since the Fall of man, God's Son entered this world. Into the pitiful, impoverished, unsterilized world, Jesus was born, taking his first nap in a donkey's feeding tray after being nursed by his mother. We must not decontaminate this Christmas!
Although I appreciate our Nativities (we have several) and our Christmas bedtime stories (we read several to Judah), we need to dirty up the scene a bit. In a manner of speaking, we need to re-contaminate our Nativity scenes, debase our Christmas stories, adulterate our Advent wreaths! If we fail to do so, Christmas will be impotent, a few days of the year that might as well be called Winter Break. A Jesus who is born into the world pretty and pink and "no crying he makes" in an immaculate four star stable is not the reason for the season! A Jesus born into suffering, poverty, and weakness - the human condition - that is the reason.
So let's befoul the modern version of the Christmas story for a minute. This is no silent night, but a night pierced with the wails of a woman giving birth and - eventually - the shrill cry of a newborn. And this newborn is not clean and pink, but blue while he takes his first breaths, red with the stain of placenta and blood, and cheese yellow from the vernix layer. This unfortunate child is born not into a hospital with clean sheets and a warm blanket, but onto the floor of a stable that still smelled of the day’s manure. And the only thing sterile about the manger the baby laid in is the mule that typically takes his meals there. Unless you count the restless chickens, the baby did not have nurses checking his vitals, nor did the woman have a doctor attending to her. Not only did none of God's people show up to visit and celebrate the birth God's Son, none of Joseph or Mary's relatives showed up! And Joseph was in his hometown! But no one cared about the birth of this child – not the innkeeper, not Joseph's best friend from high school, and not the distant relatives in town. Well, wait a second, they did have a few visitors - that handful of dirty shepherds with moonshine still on their breath. If it weren't for the spiritual realities behind the moment, this would be one foul Christmas.
I don't know if that is exactly how it happened, but it's certainly closer to the truth than what our modern festivities would have you believe. We are making Christmas beautiful and pristine with the idea of honoring God. But in our cleaned up versions of the birth story we are actually accomplishing the opposite and obscuring the truth! By doing so we lose the great purpose of the Incarnation of Jesus - his Crucifixion. His suffering began the moment he exited Mary's womb and it was "finished" at the Cross. The Christmas of Matthew and Luke begins a road that is meant to lead us to Golgotha and therefore to salvation. There is no doubt that a miracle took place at Christmas, a miracle that is worth thoughtful rituals and joyful carols (and blog posts). By all means let the festivities continue! But let us not forget that the miracle we celebrate is that God's Son was willing to make himself nothing for our sake.
Is there good in Lord Voldemort?
Well? What do you think? Is there good in Lord Voldemort? I recently got into a debate with a friend who argued that there is, indeed, good in Voldemort, however small its presence might be, and that if redemption was ever possible for Voldemort, it would be through belief in that good that's within him.
For those of you who don't know him, Voldemort is the villain and self-proclaimed Lord from the Harry Potter series. Voldemort's goal is the genocide of the non-magical world (and anyone who would attempt to side with them). For the sake of this blog post, all you really need to know is that he's a bad dude, an Adolf Hitler-ish individual.
My friend argued that there is some good in Voldemort, based on the fact that Voldemort started out as a child of unfortunate circumstances - the unloved and orphaned Tom Riddle. Because he was a victim of circumstances, in my friend's argument, it means that Voldemort is not through and through evil (even though his actions might be). So what do you think? Does that mean there is some good in Voldemort? And is that good the key to Voldemort's redemption?
It's an interesting question because it quickly brought our debate from the world of Harry Potter to our own world, raising questions on the topic of the redemption of fallen humanity. Are we redeemed by believing in ourselves? Do we find salvation by tapping into the good that lies within us? Does God save us through the spark of good that he has put in our hearts?
Although there are several ways of answering this, I'd like to give the Bible the first word. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul says, "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9). Let me quickly unpack that and we should have our answer.
(a) By grace - Through God's undeserved actions toward us
(b) we have been saved - redeemed from sin, rescued from punishment
(c) through faith - through trusting (and as Galatians 2:16 makes clear, trusting Jesus, not ourselves!)
(d) This is not your own doing - your redemption was not accomplished by you!
(e) it is the gift of God - it is, from start to finish, an undeserved, unearned gift from God
(f) not a result of works - you neither accomplished it by the good within you or earned it by the good you've done
(g) so that no one may boast - God has done it this way so that no one who rightly understands their salvation can boast of it, as if it is their doing; Christians have no reason to be proud or arrogant, since their salvation has nothing to do with them!
So, are we redeemed by believing in ourselves? No! We are the ones who got ourselves into a place in need of redemption. We are redeemed through belief in another - Jesus Christ. By faith we grab hold of and receive redemption from Another.
And do we find salvation through tapping the good that lies within us, so that we may "climb out" of our sinful state? No! As the offspring of fallen humanity, we are bankrupt of good and, as Martin Luther put it, our will is by nature bound (enslaved) to sin rather than good (Ephesians 2:1-7). We are redeemed by the goodness of our Redeemer, not by the spark of good within us. Our salvation begins with the realization that we are bad and incapable of doing anything about it, because only then will we begin looking away from ourselves for a savior.
Now, there may be some of you who are professed Christians and don't view your salvation this way. That doesn't mean that you are not a true Christian. BUT it does mean that your interpretation of your salvation is faulty, which undoubtedly affects your relationship with God and others.
Finally, let's get back to our original question about Voldemort. Let's blend worlds with Harry Potter and say Lord Voldemort came to you with the same question as the Philippian jailer, "What must I do to be saved?" What would you say? I hope you wouldn't say, "Voldemort, there is good in you. Believe in yourself and you will find power to overcome your egomaniacal, wicked ways." Voldemort's belief in himself is what led him to be a egomaniacal, blood-thirsty villain. If there is any hope for Voldemort's redemption (and there is), it does not lie within him, but within the grace and power of Jesus.
And the same is true for you, reader. Even though you are most likely nowhere near the depravity of Voldemort, the difference is only in degree, not in kind. As Paul (Eph 2:1-10) and Jesus (Luke 18:9-14) and Peter (1 Peter 1:1-5) and John (20:31) agree, salvation comes through looking away from yourself and putting your hope of salvation in the mercy of Christ, not in yourself.
A Walk Down Pennsylvania Ave.
This evening, not too long after I got home from work, Judah (my 2 1/2 year old son) jumped up onto the couch and said, "I wanna watch toons, Daddy." It was tempting to give in, to go and sit with him on the couch and watch Peppa Pig with him curled up next to me. He and I are both adjusting to a newborn being in the house and sitting down in front of a "toon" is a nice momentary escape from that. But we needed some quality time together so we went for a walk instead.
He prefers to walk rather than ride in the stroller these days. So we meandered down the street, picking up pecans, tossing a light-up bouncy ball, looking at Christmas decorations, and so on. He would run ahead and say, "Chase me, Daddy!" and when I reached him he would say, "No, don't scare me!" He is a sweet boy.
Most of the time Judah and I were just walking, talking, and playing. But there were also other times when it would take on a more serious tone. He would run ahead too far and I'd say, "Judah! Wait for Daddy." Or he would get close to the street and I'd warn him, "Judah, back to the sidewalk!" Or he'd stick his fingers in a manhole cover and I'd have to put my hand on the back of his head and gently guide him away, "No buddy, you don't want to go in there." There were no tantrums tonight - maybe he's learning, or maybe I just caught him on a good night.
Toward the end of the walk it started to get dark outside and so he started walking by my side for comfort. Then a big dog started barking and growling at him from behind a fence, and he reached up his arms and said, "Hold you, hold you!"
As I was carrying him home it dawned on me how similar my walk with Judah is with my own walk with Christ, or with any Christian's walk with the Savior. There are times of carefree, joyful activity and conversation. There are seasons of bold exploration and learning. But there are also times when I stray. Sometimes I stray a little and need a gentle hand on the back of my head to guide me back to the path of life. I also stray big time, stubbornly putting myself in danger, chasing after foolish ideas and throwing a tantrum when God doesn't give me my way. In those times, if it weren't for the severe mercy / gracious discipline of God, I'd be a goner. And then there are times when darkness descends or an enemy approaches and I run to Christ for safety.
So while I saw much of my own sinful wandering in our walk, I also saw much of God - a fatherly, attentive God who is always shepherding his flock along the path of righteousness to make sure we make it to his home, even when it means giving his own life to ensure it. I found great peace in that.
In these ways, Judah and I were actors in a parable of Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
This blog is written by the authors of Cypress Press, meant for the creative illustration and application of God's Word.