Hey Friends, so Christmas is just one week from today, but I’m feeling a little flat on Christmas spirit this year.
Who’s really been feeling Christmas this year, like you are so into the holiday season?
And who’s like me and just hasn’t really gotten there yet?
I mean in past years, we did this by turning our living room into kind of a Christmas shrine. Our family would get a decent sized tree, and we’d pull out our big box of ornaments and decorate like crazy. My parents are really into Christmas ornaments as gifts, and I’ve known them for almost 50 years, so we have a lot of them. Decorating the tree, smelling it, sitting by it in the evening with some Christmas music on – that’s been a really nice part of this month most years for me.
But we got a puppy this summer, and he’s still in the sticks are for chewing phase of dog life – and little shiny things like ornaments are for chewing too, so Grace and I were thinking: no way on the Christmas tree this year.
Our kids insisted we get a little one and put it in the basement, which we did, but since we don’t hang out in the basement much, that’s mostly meant a half-decorated baby Christmas tree sits there all by itself, not really stoking the Christmas spirit at all.
When I was younger, I used to sing a lot this time of year. I have all these memories of singing in Christmas concerts in schools and churches and community centers and big concert halls in Boston, and tiny little country clubs and living rooms. I’ve sung Christmas music all kinds of places, and loved doing that, but it’s been a while since I’ve done much of that, and I’m a little picky about what Christmas music I like and haven’t even listened to much of that this year either.
Anyway, for whatever reasons, here we are, a week from Christmas, and it’s falling a little flat for me. So for me, if nothing else, but maybe for some of you too, I want to talk about how this week, and in the days and weeks after that, we can get in on the Christmas spirit action a little more.
Today is the the fourth Sunday of Advent, the church’s four week pre-Christmas season that ends next weekend at our Christmas Eve services, in person at 4:30 p.m. and online at 7:00 p.m.
In our Advent guide we produced this year, that you’ll find at our website, we spent the first three weeks looking at the self-giving love of God with all of us. And in the final week the guide invites us to join God in a little bit of self-giving love of our own, to celebrate Christmas by participating in the love of God in our own way.
Jesus, again and again in his teaching about the kingdom of the heavens, of the beloved community, invites us to participate together in the love of God. Here’s one time he does that, a teaching that has become known as the parable, or the story, of the sheep and the goats. It goes like this:
Matthew 25:31-46 (Common English Bible)
31 “Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne.
32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.
34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began.
35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’
37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink?
38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear?
39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels.
42 I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink.
43 I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’
45 Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’
46 And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”
Kind of a surprising choice for a Christmas text, I know. No shepherds or stables or baby Jesus, and instead of peace and joy, Jesus talks about a sometimes angry king, dividing up two very surprised groups of people. And in the story, to some he says: Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. It’s like a bad Santa kind of moment – he knows if you’ve been bad or good – but the stakes here aren’t presents or a lump of coal. The stakes are inheriting the kingdom prepared for you, or unending fire and eternal punishment.
Whoo. Let’s deal with the scary part of this story first.
Jesus is telling a story. And like every story people tell, including stories Jesus tells, the point is never whether or not it’s all literally true. When people tell stories, we pretty much always know it’s not all literally true. That’s not the point.
The point is whatever truth or truths the story is communicating. The point is how we’re invited to respond to and participate in the story – either for entertainment value, or reflection, or in this case, to shake up our sense of how the world works and how to live in it.
Here Jesus is telling a kind of story that was popular in the religious culture of his era. These were stories about a judgment throne, where God would evaluate people’s lives and faith. And the point of these stories was more about the present than about the future.
It’s like science fiction. Science fiction looks like it’s about the future, but usually it’s using a story about the future to say something about the present.
Same here. Jesus tells this story about a time when the Human One – a nickname he used for himself – is going to help God evaluate humanity. And the point of these stories is to tell us how to live in the present – they tell us what kind of lives, what kind of faith God wants for us. The point isn’t so much to imagine what kind of curse or reward might come our way some day – that’s more of a set up for the story. The point is to pay attention to what Jesus is saying about the good life, to pay attention to what Jesus is inviting us to.
Beyond the rewards and punishment aspect of the story, though, the rest of what Jesus is saying about the good life is kind of surprising too.
I mean, last week I Googled how to get in on the Christmas spirit, and the stuff I found was like: listen to Christmas music, light some candles, drink eggnog, bake some more, wash your hands with holiday hand soaps. I don’t know what a holiday handsoap is, by the way. Do you?
One website was trying to argue that you get into the Christmas spirit by doing more chores.
Which kind of nonplussed me, by the way.
Now Jesus does have this story he tells about baking, but his advice here for the good life – at Christmas or maybe any other time too – is nothing like this.
Jesus is like:
Go visit the prison. Feed someone. Take care of a sick person.
And not only that, but he says do these things because when you do them, you are doing them for me. Jesus says
I’m the hungry and thirsty person. I’m the sick one. I’m the asylum seeker, the undocumented immigrant,
what in Jesus’ time, they just called the stranger. I’m the naked one. I’m the prisoner.
Now this isn’t a classic Christmas story, but it turns out that this is actually at the heart of the Christmas story.
The Christmas story Jesus is in doesn’t really have anything to do with candles and carols and baking and holiday hand soaps, whatever those are.
It’s about God’s radical inversion of the social pyramid. It’s a kind of flipping of the script of where God is and what is the good life.
All societies have their social pyramids – the kind of masses of ordinary people at the bottom and in the middle and the special people we all wish we were at the top. Now, some of the details change from time to time. Some societies praise the beauty of skinny people for instance and some praise the beauty of rounder people. Standards of beauty change.
But I don’t think any society has said, you know who’s at the top of the pyramid, the people closest to God – it’s the people without food. It’s the sick people and the imprisoned people, and the outsiders who don’t belong people.
In Jesus’ context, in the first century Roman empire, they had a pretty clear pyramid. Rich, free, men who were Roman citizens were at the top of the pyramid. They could have whatever they wanted, they lived the good life, and at the very tip top of all those rich free Roman men was their king, their Caesar.
And when a new king was born, there was a nativity story, a celebration of his birth. They called him the son of God. They shared the gospel of his birth, sending out messengers – in Greek angelos or angels to announce: a king is born, he will bring glory and peace on earth, good news to all peoples.
It sounds like the Christmas story, doesn’t it?
But in Jesus’ Christmas story, we’re not in Rome but on the eastern edges of the empire in the Jewish town of Bethlehem. And there aren’t candles and holiday hand soaps – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – that’d come later, but there’s just a dirty old barn and a feeding trough, the stench of sheep piss and donkey crap in the air. As Mary nurses the baby Jesus on his first night of life, there aren’t ambassadors and servants to wait upon him, just dirty village shepherds.
This doesn’t sound much like glory. It’s not what we expect from a king, it’s not where we’d expect to find God either. I mean who meditates on the image of a barnyard? Who lights sheep piss, animal dung scented candles for their prayer times?
This is upside down, it subverts all our expectations.
Howard Thurman, pastor to America’s civil rights movement, one of the great Christian mystics and activists of the 20th century, wrote a landmark book called Jesus and the Disinherited. In it, he argues that the disinherited – those denied inheritance of wealth or power or honor or privilege – are God’s favored people. Jesus came first, he writes, to those with their backs against the walls.
And so if we read the story of the sheep and the goats, the so-called greatest and least of our species, we can hear Jesus inviting us:
you want to get in on the Christmas spirit? I’ll tell you where I am. I’m with the sick and imprisoned, the hungry and the stranger, I’m with everyone whose back is up against the wall. Join me there, love me there. And you’ll have your reward.
Years ago, Grace and I knew a couple who tried to live this way very earnestly. And every year during Advent, what they did is they gave a Christmas present, a birthday gift, to Jesus. And the way they did that was in light of this story Jesus told. They fed hungry people or visited sick people, clothed people, engaged with estranged or imprisoned people.
Their names were Cary and Lil, and newly married, in our 20s, Grace and I were like: we want to be like that. So when we had kids, we decided we would not give our kids presents but together we would make a gift to Jesus. Some years, that meant pooling our money for a charitable donation. It’s meant serving food for a day at a local meal center for the unhoused, stuff like that.
At first, that was awesome, but then as we had a second and a third kid, and they started getting aware of the world, we were like: you know, we like part of this tradition. But we also don’t want our kids to find us stingy and mean, which if we never give them Christmas gifts, that might be hard for them.
So we started to do the gift to Jesus thing together but also to give gifts to our kids too.
But how do we think about what it means to give gifts to Jesus by engaging in love with the people Jesus especially identifies with: the bottom of the pyramid, so so called “least of these,” the disinherited, those with their backs against the wall.
You could view this as payback. Jesus says God loves you, so love God back, and this is how you do it. Not be getting more religious but by loving the people Jesus especially identifies with.
And maybe there is something to that, but I guess I also prefer to think of it not just as payback but more like “paying it forward” – God has loved me, blessed me so much, and Jesus invites me to participate in the flow of that love, to continue passing it on. And he teaches how to do so, in a way that also brings him joy.
Our friends in Asha, the slum development community in north India, are especially and beautifully committed to this “pay it forward” way of life. They teach and practice that everyone needs to be loved. We all have hurting, lonely, needy part of ourselves. And everyone, no matter how sick, no matter how poor, everyone has something to give too. We can all feed and clothe and visit and love someone else, within our own means and abilities. So they teach and practice “pay it forward” loving communities. It’s very powerful.
Sometimes a problem come up when we try to live this way. I’ll call it the problem of charity. Where you can start to literally see other groups of people as the least of these, lower than you, and serve them in some way out of a condescending pity. Do it for the least of these.
Grace and I are in a small group with a few others from this church where we’ve had this discussion recently. We’re studying this book I mentioned, Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. And there are people in that group whose whole careers are about compassionate service and social justice, and other people in that group that don’t do that for our jobs, but care deeply.
And we were asking:
Is this what Jesus wants from us? More charity? Whether on the giving or receiving of charity, more non-relational handouts? Disconnected, but generous, condescension?
We don’t think so.
I’ve been watching Breaking Bad the last month – maybe that’s why the Christmas spirit hasn’t really settled in. It’s like the most nihilistic, violent, negative story arc ever. Somehow gripping still.
Anyway, the whole arc of that five-season show turns on a suddenly quite sick man’s lack of interest in receiving charity. He just won’t do it, can’t do it. So he becomes a meth producer instead.
I’ve been there too – not the drug dealer part, but the bad feeling one gets when you feel like you’re the subject of someone else’s charitable handout. Doesn’t feel good.
So I’ve wondered if the point of this passage, and the invitation to the Christmas spirit too, isn’t payback, isn’t even pay it forward, but is participation.
Later, the apostle John, reflecting on this story perhaps, wrote this in a letter:
I John 4:7-8 (Common English Bible)
7 Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God.
8 The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love.
So simple. God is love. All love somehow has its origins in God. So when we love, we are participating in the love of God. We know God when we love, whether we’re religious or spiritual or not, whether we call it God or not. But when we don’t love, when we don’t participate in the flow of God’s love for all people and all things, the reverse is true. No matter what we say about ourselves or our faith, when we don’t love, we don’t know God either.
Jesus’ story of the Sheep and the Goats. It’s not about charity, it’s about solidarity. When we ignore or dismiss those who are hungry, thirsty, imprisoned, immigrants and asylum seekers and all, we ignore and dismiss Jesus. Just as when we love God’s image bearers, and especially those whose dignity and needs are neglected and trashed, then we love God.
I take this super-literally for what it’s worth. I’m still trying to give Christmas presents to Jesus in this spirit, including my family when I can. As a pastor to a relatively wealthy, privileged community, I try to let myself be interrupted and inconvenienced when sick or dying or imprisoned people call.
Our church takes this kind of literally too. We try to prioritize in our church resources a participatory flow of love to Jesus in the faces and bodies of the excluded, neglected, impoverished, and oppressed. And to do that in a dignity-honoring, participatory way, not a condescending, so called charitable way.
I hope you can find your way into this.
But I want to end with an invitation toward the insight of our friends in India with Asha, the insight we had in my Saturday Bible study that read this passage yesterday too, that this is a call to participation. We all have something to give, something to share. And we all have parts of us that are the least of these too, that are in need.
So to get into the Christmas spirit this week, I invite you to ask and respond to two questions.
One is, what do I need, and how do I ask for it?
What do I need, and who can I ask for it?
My heart was really powerfully awakened by this question last week, and I feel God spoke to me about a need I have to let go of some trauma that has passed by me, to breathe it out, and I’m looking for ways to do that this Christmas.
How about you? What do you need? And who can you ask for it?
And secondly: what do I have to give? How can I give and love with abandon?
Or as we ask it in our guide:
How this Christmas can you participate in God’s self-giving love? Who will you see? Who will you visit? How will you see Jesus in them, and show up accordingly?
This is the way into the Christmas spirit my friends – the candles, the songs, even the holiday hand soaps are fine if you’ve got them. But this stepping in the great and beautiful love of God – this is where the magic is at. Let’s join Jesus there. We’ll be glad you did.