Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Christmas With an Edge

One of my favorite movie scenes is in the film Talledega Nights, the otherwise raunchy comedy about a redneck race car driver, played by comedian Will Ferrell. He and his family are gathered around a "bountiful harvest" of Domino's, KFC, and the "always delicious" Taco Bell. Ferrell's character Ricky Bobby is saying grace, directing his prayers to an, "8 pound, 6 ounce, newborn infant Jesus," wearing a golden diaper. After several "baby Jesus" references, Ricky's wife has finally had enough, and stops the prayer to remind Ricky that Jesus did grow up, and he shouldn't direct his prayers to a baby. He responds with this rejoinder:

"I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I'm saying grace. When you say grace, you can say it to the grown-up Jesus, or teenage Jesus, or bearded Jesus, or whoever you want."

You may wonder why I like this scene so much. You may even consider it sacrilegious. What you're really seeing though, is biting social commentary about Bible Belt religiosity, cloaked in Christianity, but stripped of it's offensiveness. It's cuddly Christianity, created by man to make us feel good about ourselves. It is far from the Christianity of the Bible. And I think many of us are prone to fall prey to the temptation of this kind of faith, especially around Christmas time.

There is much talk these days about keeping Christ in Christmas, and that is important, as far as it goes. But I'm afraid the Christ that many people are talking about this time of year is closer to Ricky Bobby's Jesus than it is the real one. When we think about Jesus at Christmas, it is the cuddly baby in the manger, awakened by lowing cattle, but too omnipotent to cry, as if he alerted his mother that he was hungry by simply clearing his throat. The fact is, there was no "Silent Night." We see angels and wise men and sheep, and we forget about blood and afterbirth and manure. But Christmas has an edge to it, a sharp edge that will cut deeply when it is truly understood for what it is, when we look past the postcard nativity paintings and more deeply into what is behind them.

The point is this; we are far too prone to sanitize Christianity, the same way we sanitize Christmas. You see, there was never a time in Jesus' life, even when he was a newborn baby, when everything was simply nice and peaceful, when he was not a lightning rod for controversy, when the specter of conflict and death did not hang over his head. Matthew 2:3 says when King Herod heard about Jesus' birth, "he was deeply disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him." He immediately set out to have him killed. And with good reason. He saw Jesus for who he truly was; a threat to his kingdom. He's a threat to the kingdoms you have built too. Jesus' birth foreshadowed something big, and quite frankly frightening, for most of the world. God has come. He has come to set things right. The king has arrived. He has come to save, no doubt. But he has also come to judge. From now on, the dividing line between whether a man is on the side of God or not will be what he does with this baby in a manger.

As we celebrate the birth of Jesus this year, we Christians can do so with great happiness. We who follow Jesus can completely understand the "tidings of comfort and joy," that he brings with him.  But we cannot expect everyone to see it that way. This Jesus who came as a babe, and grew to be a man, who died on a cross and was raised from the grave, is no milquetoast Savior. He demands our allegiance. He demands our lives. He demands that we follow him, no matter the cost. And he tells us that is the only way to save our selves. This message has never been non-controversial. It never will be. It's not a message you can keep wrapped in swaddling clothes, nor is it one that will stay dressed in funeral garments.