Today I want to start a series for the next few weeks leading up to Christmas. We are in a season that Christians have, for over a thousand years, called “Advent.” And I’d like to start this Advent series with a blog about war.
I’m obviously way too sentimental.
I don’t know what my favorite Christmas tradition is. Maybe it’s putting up the tree with the family, or maybe it’s reading the Christmas stories to the kids at bedtime. But I know what it’s not. Every year, around this time almost like clockwork, we start hearing the pundits on television talking about the war on Christmas. It’s normally about how some nativity scene in some city was forced to move away from a public park next door to some land owned by a church.
And we call that war.
I’m tired of culture wars in general, but I’m specifically tired of this piece of it. And not for the reasons you might think. Sometimes the ways that Jesus followers get involved in the public sphere hurt the reputation of Churches. I don’t think that’s true here. I just think it hurts the Churches.
I think it hurts Christmas.
Because if we think that moving our nativity scenes is the equivalent of war, then we should go back and read the Christmas story. Do you remember why Mary has the child in a stable? Remember why God has to send some coded message to some wise men with stars? It’s because Herod, the King of the day, heard the rumors of a this new baby king, and as the sitting ruler, he didn’t like Christmas either. So he tricks some wise men to go fetch Jesus for him so that he might “worship” the baby. And when the wise men see Jesus, when they realize that God is doing something through this little baby, they sneak off and never return to Herod. And when the sitting King realizes this, we finally understand what he meant by “worship.”
Herod commits infanticide on hundreds or thousands of baby boys.
That’s what a war on Christmas looks like.
The Christmas story starts off with a first century Hitler on the throne. Who’s so afraid of losing his political power that he’s willing to wipe out an entire generation of Jewish boys just to kill one of them. Joseph and Mary and Jesus all have to flee the country, Joseph goes from this devout Jewish man, to Jack Bauer overnight.
And Herod does this all, not because he doesn’t understand what’s going on, he does it, because he does understand Christmas.
Did you know that right now, all over the world there are people who gather together in secret to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Just by gathering together they are breaking the law, and it’s not because the national governments of the places they live in don’t understand Christmas, it’s because they do! Christmas is the arrival of a King, and if you are a political leader or king of any stripe then Christmas is going to be hard to accept.
Because the truth is that there isn’t so much a war on Christmas as there is the War of Christmas.
Jesus didn’t come with the title of religous figurehead. He came with the title of King. In a day and culture where that meant something. He’s the president, the Prime Minister the Supreme Leader of the World. That’s what Christmas means, and wherever a group of people gather together and celebrate that, expect for there to be people who are against it.
It’s ironic to me that we fight about nativity scenes getting pushed to the margins of society when that’s exactly where the first nativity scene occurred. Now I get why Christians sometimes get so worked up about this, Symbols matter, and they see groups try to replace language of Christmas with Holidays or the slide of Judeo-Christian values in society. I really do understand that, but a lot of the rhetoric I hear about this seems based in fear. And that’s why it’s important to actually remember what the real Christmas story is about.
Did you know that the prologue for every Christmas passage in the Bible is “Do Not Be Afraid.”
Every time an angel shows up to tell anyone about Jesus they always start off with “Do Not Be Afraid.” And if you think about it that’s really the dumbest thing they could say. Mary is about to go head to head with Rome, the largest political power the world had ever seen. She is going to be gossiped about, shamed, her firstborn is going to be killed, and her family is going to be in danger from that day forward. And this angel has the gall to tell her not to be afraid?
But this angel knows exactly what he’s doing.
In the fourth century, there was a monk named Dionysus the Insignificant (who was a bit bummed about his last name) but this monk is the one who gave us the Calendar we still use today. And Dionysus didn’t put at the center of his calendar the story about the founding of Rome. Unlike every other calendar of his day, this monk divided up time Before Christ and After Christ. His calendar was centered around the Christmas story.
And it stuck.
Jesus lived and died and Caesar never even knew about him.
John Ortberg points out that one of the earliest titles of Jesus was the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings. They called him that in a time when Jesus had only a handful of followers. In the day the first Christians started calling him that, it would have been unbelievable to the outside world. But the fact remains that 2000 years after his birth, when anybody, anywhere in the world opens a calendar, unfolds a newspaper, looks at a tombstone or writes a check, they are reminded that Jesus Christ has become the hinge of history.
Because Nero died in the Year of our Lord 68; Napoleon died in the Year of our Lord 1821; Hitler died in the Year of our Lord 1945.
So maybe you don’t believe that Jesus was the Lord of lords and the King OF kings–but no matter what you believe, or where that nativity scene winds up miving to this year. The undeniable fact is that every ruler who has ever reigned, every nation that will ever rise and fall, now must be dated in reference to the life of Jesus.
That’s what Christmas means.
He’s bigger than what you are afraid of.
So Do not Be Afraid.