Searching for a Biblical Christmas – Competition 1/8
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
November 5th, 2017
Eight weeks. Eight weeks till Christmas. Whoever went woo-hoo, we need to talk. You hadn’t thought about that, had you? And how much anxiety; you’ve got to remember to breathe. And Christmas is coming. And people are coming. Do you ever want to skip Christmas?
Yes, what it has become, sure does make it tempting – although — you might want to watch the movie, Christmas with the Kranks. Remember that movie, with Tim Allen, and Dan Aykroyd, and what happens when one family tries to skip Christmas. It brings a lot of unforeseen consequences, especially when their grownup daughter comes back from serving abroad, expecting Christmas to be as she remembered it as a child. And they were just saving the money to go on a cruise. That movie is good. It’s part of our Christmas movie genre. The movies that we all have pirated, and we all have them now, and we get them out and watch them at Christmas, right?
What else do you do on Christmas Day while the turkey is cooking in… ? Well, you put Christmas stuff… Mickey’s Christmas, from 1938. You remember that one? Yes, some others are there. I haven’t given a lot of thought to those movies until just now, but they all form us, and they all shape us. I think part of the reason that it’s so tempting to want to skip Christmas is: Christmas in our cultural religion has lost its connection to hope. It’s become an economic event. It’s become the cultural movie event. It’s become, looking for the warm, fuzzy, and how do I spin-up enough Christmas spirit to get through this? You know what I want to say. Well, maybe you do.
And I’m not about to go off the other end of the spectrum and say: well, Jesus is the reason for the season. Which may be true, but it usually translates into just as many lights, just as much stress, just as many mall trips, and presents, and wrapping paper. But, it’s different. Superior, because we’ve said the words: Jesus is the reason for the season; which makes us better in some way. So, I’m, basically, ready to throw it all away, frankly. I don’t know if that’s clear. But, I think the reason is because we’ve lost the connection to hope. And so, I’d like to spend a few weeks talking us back into what Christmas means.
And you might want to fasten your seatbelts because, today, I’m going to share with you, I’m going to point you to, something that you may have an inkling about, but is nowhere to be seen in our cultural religion. Words like hope show up in Christmas cards. That’s nice. But we have no connection to what that really means.
The prophetic text that Bill read for us today, Jeremiah, is one of the first in the Old Testament where we get an inkling of what Jesus is about. The first mention from the mouth of God that there is one whom he will send; who will mean something different.
What’s happened here, 600 years before Jesus walked the earth, is God is lamenting the loss of good shepherds to lead the people Israel. God is especially frustrated, disappointed, and in fact angry at the current king, King Jehoiakim. You might ask: well, we thought God was about love, what did Jehoiakim do to offend God?
Well, rabbinical literature is quite expressive in its description of King Jehoiakim as an atrocious tyrant. He spent money on himself that was not his. He was critical of others for what they did until he wanted to do it and then it was okay. He was sexually aggressive to any woman he desired. He had woman seized and held to be his play-things. He married multiple times. He had multiple affairs outside of those marriages. He gave jobs, big jobs, to his friends, expecting kick-backs. He would hire people to do work, and then he wouldn’t pay them once the work was completed. He was known to lie. He was un-trusted. He had tantrums.
Jehoiakim committed fraud to enrich himself. And in doing so, God’s charge against him is that he has now made the nation’s focus its economy. And God said: you worship the functions of money, more than you are close to me. The purpose of the culture of Israel in that day became money and accumulation. Jehoiakim made the whole conversation about what he was going to get; what his friends were going to get; and what his enemies and anyone who challenged him was going to get.
Jehoiakim claimed he believed in God. But the people see right through him because he echoed no values of God, in how he acted. He was terrible at diplomacy. He used big talk and bluster. And finally, he said: we’re going to invade Egypt and show them how powerful we are. We will show the world. We will demonstrate our strength. It was a disaster; half the army was routed.
A year later, when the Babylonians, up to the north, were on the march, Jehoiakim tried to flip relationships and allegiances and he tried to unite with Egypt for protection. He went to Egypt and they laughed at him. And they said: we’re going to chase you out of our country. And if we catch you, we will execute you. And he ran. And the Babylonian king arrested him and had him executed summarily. Jeremiah goes on to record that Jehoiakim died with no funeral. The people of Israel did not lament for him. His body has been treated like that of a donkey which has died. His body has been cast out into the heat of the day and the frost of the night. This is the glory of one such as this.
Jehoiakim was bad. He was a bad shepherd of the people. And today we heard God speak: it is you who has scattered my flock, and driven them away from me. You have not attended to them in my ways, so I will attend to you for your evil-doings.
Money as identity; sexual aggression and confusion; taking care of our own; using big talk and strutting; changing allegiances when it serves our purpose; deception; lying; tantrums; and a culture of money and accumulation. These are God’s charges against Jehoiakim through Jeremiah the prophet.
Needless to say, Jeremiah was not a popular prophet. But the purpose of Jeremiah was not only to make charges, identify God’s problem with where the nation was, but also God’s solution. God promises to gather the remnant of the flock and put the people under the care of a new generation of leaders; leaders who will be good shepherds; who will be wise and watch over the people; protect them and keep them from getting lost.
Better yet, this is the first inkling we hear, God is going to raise up through David a righteous branch. And he shall reign as a king and he shall execute justice wisely. And bring righteousness to the land. This righteous branch is none other than Jesus, the one to be born at the time of the Emperor Augustus, when he too was playing games to gain what he could get. This branch, Jesus, comes to reign with justice and righteousness. To provide safety for all of God’s people. To find and gather lost sheep; and to be to them, a good shepherd. 600 years before Jesus was born, this description was given. And this is the name by which he shall be called; the Lord is our righteousness.
I’ve never seen that in a Christmas card, have you? It’s a bit of an odd name. But if we miss it, we’re going to miss the deep meaning of Christmas, given to us by the Old Testament.
We’ve talked about righteousness in New Testament Greek. The word is dikaiosýnē. And you could probably tell me what it means. We’ve talked about it enough times. It’s that word from the royal court, having to do with who is given access to the king. Dikaiosýnē, it’s a gift. Access to the king, God on high, it’s a gift. That’s the implication. And also, the implication because of the royal court: act like you have earned your way in and you’re in trouble. In the royal court, you would lose your head over something like that.
The point of dikaiosýnē is: because you have been given access to the king, you should act differently. You should walk as someone, you should talk as someone, you should behave as someone who’s representing the king because you have had access.
Old Testament word for this is, tsadik, which means exactly the same thing. We see it in the story of Esther, and her questions about access to the king, who happened to be her husband. Access to the king is granted as a gift. You must never act as if it’s a possession or a right or an entitlement.
And Jeremiah takes this idea, this word tsadik, and he makes an interesting application to the king of the day, Jehoiakim. He is speaking to Jehoiakim. And he says: you are not acting in ways adequately representational of the gifts God has given you. You are acting as if you are entitled to the power you wield. But you are dividing, and distracting, and scattering people that you’ve been entrusted to lead. You will be torn down. You will be cast out. You will suffer your own definition of glory.
Jeremiah goes on and says: access to power, real power, is in our relationship to God. The Lord is our righteousness, not you, Jehoiakim. Jeremiah is being defiant. Jeremiah is thumbing his nose at the power of his nation. And Jeremiah is saying: my loyalty lies in the Lord. Not in your ways of unrighteousness, Jehoiakim. I will not make peace. I will not call you good. I will not play nice. You may threaten me. You may attack me. You may slander me. You may arrest me. You may kill me. But, the Lord is our righteousness.
This is where we first get an inkling into who and what Jesus will be. And what he is all about. This gets in the way of our cultural Christmas celebration because it clarifies for us; Jesus is not Frosty the Snowman, who melts when things get hot. And Jesus is not Santa Claus, a ho-ho-ing gift-giving, right-jolly old elf, coming down our chimneys to shower us with expensive toys and treasures. In fact, these things are exactly opposite of the theology of the biblical text. If we believe that presents are a sign of God’s favor then we have missed a component, a character of our king.
Jesus is a shepherd. He gives more attention to the lost sheep and lambs than those who are safely at home in the flock. The Lord is our righteousness. There’s nothing cute, or joyful, or cheerful, about it. Probably doesn’t fit into our fantasies about what it means to spin up a good dose of Christmas spirit. But if we ignore it we’re going to miss who Jesus really is. And we run a huge risk. In fact, I think we’ve missed it for years; missed what Christmas means.
Jeremiah is asserting what Jesus lived. There is no barrier. There is no terror. There is nobody. There is nothing that can keep us from God’s love. And we should live as loved, loving people. And therefore, there is no reason to back down or to cower or to give in to unrighteousness. And to me, that’s an awesome reason to have hope.
The message for the season is: righteous living is about our relationship through our access to God; nothing more; nothing less. And what I want to ask you to think about this morning is: what would it look like for your household to have a Christmas that honors Jesus? What he’s about. I figured this out, if we wait until advent to start, it’s too late. We’ve already made our trips to the stores. If we’re smart, we’ve already done our shopping. It’s all in the bag.
I have to hurry here, because sometime this week, the easy listening station is going to start playing Christmas carols, 24 hours a day. Sure, go buy presents at the store, but make a commitment that the purpose of your Christmas is not to carry the economy of our nation. Sure, overdo it a little bit at Christmas dinner, but be clear that small portions and eating slowly and the contemplation of the things for which you are grateful, feeds the soul much more than the belly.
Sure, go to a party or two, and maybe even drink the best wine with your friends. But, what if the purpose of the Christmas party was to raise money for a life-changing charity? What if it’s no longer about getting? Maybe, if you think about it, and you plan ahead a little bit, this is going to be the year when your household finds its Christmas spirit, when you go to feed the homeless on the hardest day for shelters to find volunteers – Christmas morning. Most of them don’t serve a meal.
Maybe this will be the year that your family begins a new tradition of giving significant resources. The previous years have gone to things that you know are going to get thrown away by April 3rd. Significant resources in someone else’s name; making a gift to save the family, or Amcor, Heifer Project, or UMOM, in the name of another person. And that’s your gift to them. I gave $500 in your name, to Heifer Project. I gave $500 in your name to the women’s shelter. The Lord is our righteousness.
Maybe this will be the year when, if you’ve been prone to having tantrums when your siblings are in town, this will be the year when you make a commitment to have a different behavior set. You don’t go immediately to verbal violence or to spiritual violence or to physical violence. Or maybe this will be the year when social action against greed and selfishness on behalf of the vulnerable becomes important in your life, you understand the meaning of Christmas.
To experience the righteousness of Christmas is to keep being drawn deeper into a close relationship with God. It’s to discover that social justice and personal peace are parts of a Godly way of life. It’s what happens when we put God first.
Jeremiah knew that you can’t be a good shepherd and abuse the sheep. You can’t be a righteous leader and misuse your power. And Jesus felt exactly the same way. This is why the both invited us into a right relationship with God; one that takes seriously the need to look beyond ourselves and what am I going to get out of this. And execute justice and righteousness in the land.
So, go ahead, put Frosty on your roof and leave cookies for Santa. But don’t miss this opportunity to focus your attention on the coming of Jesus; the one who shows us that the Lord is our righteousness. If you miss it you’ll be skipping Christmas.