When I first sat down on the plane, I did what anyone would do.
I began thumbing through the pages of SkyMall.
A Kenny G Muzak cover of Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” played over the speakers as the throng of travelers stepped on board and stowed their carry-on above them.
Across the aisle, a boy who looked to be in the third or fourth grade was wailing loud enough to make the veins in his neck pop out. His mother had her arm around him and was saying “shush,” but the boy was inconsolable.
Behind me, a woman argued with her husband: “All I know is that if your mother treats me like she did last Thanksgiving this year, I won’t keep my mouth shut.”
On my right, a teenage girl was smacking her gum and blowing bubbles. On her lap she had opened a copy of Seventeen magazine. She was reading an article about teens and plastic surgery and how to know when too much plastic surgery is too much. Sitting on my left, a middle-aged man in an expensive-looking suit was barking orders into his iPhone. He had a Wall Street Journal, as well as a Financial Times folded underneath his arm and a leather tote overflowing with papers on his lap.
He spoke with a Northeastern accent— Boston maybe— and he smelled so strongly of cologne that I couldn’t help but wonder if his musk had real bits of panther in it.
He kept barking instructions into his phone until the stewardess came over and shot him a stern look and told him we were getting ready for takeoff.
And there I was, the happy, holiday traveler, stuck in the middle of Bernie Madoff and Miley Cyrus.
I was flying home from a speaking gig I had in Tyler, Texas, and I had an early morning flight. The sky was still dark enough that when we were in the air, you could see the stars.
Once we were in the air, the girl to my right had moved on to read an article about eyeshadow.
And the woman behind me— though it sounded like she was actually in my ear canal— was giving a blow-by-blow recount of the last holiday she’d had to spend with her husband’s mother.
Having had many of these same conversations with my own wife, I didn’t bother to turn around. Even without looking, I knew her husband was looking sheepish and emasculated, and probably gritting his teeth in a ‘serenity now’ kind-of-way.
“Where you headed?” the businessman on my left asked.
And I thought to myself: “Well, it says Atlanta on my ticket, but it feels like I’m already half-way to Hell.”
“I’m headed home, D.C.,” I said.
He chuckled and said, “Good luck.”
Now, I don’t like to talk to people on airplanes.
It’s not that I’m unfriendly or shy. It’s just that I learned early on in my ministry that there are certain situations in which revealing to a stranger that I’m a pastor can provoke interminable, unwanted conversations.
Ironically, though, I’ve learned that one of the best ways to avoid conversation with strangers on planes is by taking my Bible out of my bag and simply opening it up on the tray table in front of me.
You don’t even have to read it, necessarily. You can just leave it open like a force field of personal space.
Religious people will think you’re doing your devotions and will respect your privacy, while non-religious people won’t say anything for the fear that you’re Baptist and might evangelize them.
And, if you really want to make sure no one bothers you, just open it up to the Book of Revelation along with the current issue of Guns and Ammo.
Stops them every time.
That morning I thumbed through SkyMall and I had my Bible out and opened, not to Revelation, but to Matthew— not only to stymy potential conversation with the businessman to my left, but also, because Advent was ahead and I thought I’d jot down some sermon notes while I had the chance.
Meanwhile, the businessman sitting next to me pulled out his laptop and opened it up. He had at least a dozen windows opened in his browser, the homepages for all sorts of stores: Williams Sonoma, REI, Pottery Barn, Kate Spade. You name it.He pored over them like he was reading an ancient map.
He had Excel open on his computer, and he was building a Christmas shopping spreadsheet. He was typing in the name of the item, the cost, the person who would receive the gift, and then he inserted a hyperlink to the company’s website. Every now and then he would click the “Sum” button on the screen, giving him a grand total cost for his 2019 Christmas.
I went back to thumbing through the Christmas issue of SkyMall, where I saw that I could get a replica Kylo Ren lightsaber for only $800.00.
I was just thinking to myself who in their right mind would pay that much money for a fake lightsaber— especially for the bad guy’s lightsaber— when the guy sitting next to me said, “Hey, can I see that a minute? My nephew would love that.”
I watched while he typed all the information into his spreadsheet. His nephew’s name was Brian. He handed SkyMall back to me and with his tiny travel-sized mouse he clicked “Save.”
After he finished, he let out a deep, exhausted sigh. And he said, “It’s the same every year. This can’t be what it’s all about. Can it?”
I looked over at him. “You talking to me?” I said as the fingers of my right hand deftly felt over my bible for the Book of Revelation.
“Yeah”, he said.
“Are you religious,” he asked, and nodded at the Bible on my tray.
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said.
“That’s good,” he said in an absent sort of voice. “I’m not. I mean, I’ve searched before for….”
I let his voice trail off.
A few moments passed and he asked what I was reading, in the Bible.
“It’s the story of the magi,” I said. He just blinked at me like a deer in headlights.
“The wise men,” I said.
He said, “Right, I know what you’re talking about. I’ve seen them in those displays in people’s yards. They have the turbans and the camels, right? They’re the ones who follow the star to the manger?”
“Not exactly,” I said. “They go to Jerusalem first, not the manger in Bethlehem. It’s close but they’re off by about nine miles.”
“Sounds like they must’ve let their wives drive,” he laughed.
I thought that might be the end of it. I was just about to turn to Revelation or pull out Guns and Ammo, or pretend I was asleep.
But then he asked me, “Why do they go to Jerusalem first?”
“Well, they were looking for a King. The magi were just like us, educated, rich and sophisticated. They came from a powerful nation,” I said.
“They went to Jerusalem first, because they just assumed any ‘King’ worth their worship would be found at the center of money and might.”
He smiled at me and said, “In other words, they thought they could celebrate Christmas by traveling, giving a few gifts, and then getting back to their normal lives.”
And, I smiled and said, “Something like that.”
Outside the window the stars were starting to fade against the oncoming sunrise. The woman behind me was giving her husband the silent treatment. And, the girl next to me had fallen asleep reading 50 Shades of Grey, with a half-blown bubble of gum spread across her bottom lip. The man next to me sat up and turned towards me.
“Can I read it?” he asked.
“Well, you’ll have to ask her when she wakes up,” I said, “but I don’t think that’s the kind of book you borrow from someone.”
“No, not that book,” he said.
And, he held out his hand for my Bible. So, I handed it to him. I pointed out the first part of Chapter Two. “It’s this part,” I said.
He must’ve read it several times, searched over the words as though they contained the universe.
When he was done, he turned a few pages further into Matthew’s Gospel and then he turned a few pages back.
Then he held the Bible out to me, and he put his index finger down at the page.
“What’s this?” he asked me.
He was pointing to the poem indented in Matthew’s Gospel text:
And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people.
“That’s from Micah,” I said, “from the Old Testament.”
“Can you show me?” he asked.
And, I flipped back into the Old Testament until I found Micah, the peasant prophet, and handed it back to him.
“It’s short,” I warned, “only a few pages long.”
I watched him read it, gazing over the constellation of words.
I saw him furrow his brows intensely at times and wondered what he might be reading.
When he finished reading, he just sat holding it for a while. Then, he handed it back to me.
“It’s about Jesus, right?” he asked.
I must’ve looked confused, because he pointed at the Bible and added, “The Old Testament passage. What’s his name? Michael was making an…uh…a prediction about Jesus?”
“Sort of,” I said,
“Prediction makes it sound like a guess or, at best, a bet— like Micah’s not sure of what’s to come. It’s a prophecy. It’s a promise about what’s to come. And Matthew wants you to see that the coming of Christ is God making good on what Micah promised was to come.”
“In other words,” he said, “it’s saying Jesus is the reason for the season.”
“Well, actually, no.” I said, “Jesus is not the reason for the season.”
“What do you mean Jesus is not the reason for the season?”
He threw up his hands like we bartering in a market and I’d insulted him with my offer.
“I hear Christians saying “Jesus is the reason for the season” all the time. My neighbor has a sign in his front yard next to a wicker reindeer that says, “Jesus is the reason for the season.””
“Well, it shouldn’t be news to you that Christians have screwed the pooch on a good many things over the years.”
“Your neighbor’s wrong,” I said, “Jesus isn’t the reason for the season.”
“You’re pretty argumentative, aren’t you?” he said.
“No,” I said, “I just happen to be right.”
“When I first saw you with your Bible, I thought maybe you were a priest or a preacher, but there’s no way church folks could put up with someone as lippy as you.”
“Probably not.” I smiled, “that’s why I’m an architect; nevertheless, I’m right. Jesus isn’t the reason for the season.”
He just looked at me like I was full of it.
“Look,” I said, unbuckling my seat belt, so I could turn and face him, “You are the reason for the season. Saying “Jesus is the reason for the season” is like saying, “My cousin is the reason for April Fool’s Day.” It’s so obvious and redundant it doesn’t convey anything. No, the “reason for the season”— the reason for Christ’s coming— is you.”
“I’ve never heard it put that way before,” he said, starting to chew on it.
“Sure, you have,” I said. “You just weren’t paying attention. It’s in the Creed, “for us and for our salvation He came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man.” It’s in the carols too,” I said. “For unto us a Child is born, for unto us a Son is given…” Salvation is a gift for you, not a bargain with you.”
“I just figured that “Jesus is the reason for the season” was a way of saying people should remember to give God his due while they’re busy giving everyone else gifts. You know, that Christmas isn’t our birthday, so we shouldn’t leave Jesus off our gift list.”
“Well, that may be what the cliché means, but it’s still not the Gospel. It’s not even in the same area code as the Gospel. It’s a million zipcodes away from the Gospel,” I said.
“You’re pretty opinionated too, aren’t you?” he said.
“Maybe so, but— Look, there’s nothing peculiarly Christian about thinking we ought to give God our praise or charity. Every religion thinks their god is the reason for their holy days. Big deal. But the really bad idea— the suggestion that has not a scrap or grisel of the good news in it— is the hare-brained notion that Christmas is about you needing to give God anything.”
“What about the Christmas carol?” he said. “I’ve got the James Taylor cover of it. How does it go? “Yet, what I can I give Him, give my heart?””
“It’s a pretty tune, but it’s tone deaf theology. Why in the world would you give Jesus your heart? The only thing in your heart is sin and cholesterol.”
“Even the promise from the prophet Micah,” I said.
“People love the line about doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly, but the prophecy ends two chapters later with Micah throwing his hands up in the air and bemoaning that there’s not a single righteous person among the lot of us, and that if there’s going to be any hope— even for the religious— then God will have to come down and find a way to cast away all our sins for us.”
“The Gospel begins where you end. Christmas isn’t about you needing to give God anything. Christmas is about you not having anything at all whatsoever to give God, so God comes down in the flesh to give you Christ and everything that belongs to him. Christmas is about receiving, not giving.”
“I don’t know about all this Jesus stuff,” he said. “I feel pretty lost most of the time.”
“The magi got themselves lost too,” I said, “God was still determined to find them.”
We started our descent. The stars had leeched and disappeared in the sky. The sun was coming up through the windows. I’d closed my eyes.
“I thought that story was supposed to have shepherds and angels in it,” he said.
“That’s Luke’s Gospel,” I said. “Matthew says everything he wants to say about Christmas with the wise men.”
“But the wise men give Jesus gifts. If Christmas is about receiving, then why do the wise men give Jesus gifts?” he said.
“The gifts they give him— frankincense, gold, and myrrh— they’re gifts for a King, but they’re also gifts for a burial. They’re meant to be gifts that foreshadow the gifts Christ gives you.”
He just looked at me blankly.
“Jesus lives the life of perfect faithfulness that God requires of us all. He lives that life for us, and for that faithful life, God has made him King and seated him at the right hand of the Father— that’s the gold.
“Jesus dies to Sin in our stead— that’s the myrrh.
“And, Jesus is our Great High Priest who has made a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice so that we can come before God holy and blameless— that’s the frankincense.
“Through his faithfulness lived for you and his death to sin offered instead of you, God gives you Christ’s righteousness— Christ’s permanent perfect record— as your very own.
“Nothing you do for God or give to God could ever improve upon the gift God gives you in Christ at the rock bottom price of free,” I said.
“And what do I got to do to get this gift?” he said.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Nothing?! What’s the catch?” he said.
“No catch. The Gospel works like a wedding vow.
He’s already said, “I do,” to you.
Everything that belongs to Him is yours forever and everything that once belonged to you (your sin) became His forever.
There’s nothing for you to do but trust that it’s so and live your life with Him.
And there’s nothing you can do to undo that gift, either.
You can prove to be a less than faithful bride, but you’re still his bride and, as his bride, everything that’s His is yours.
You can blow $800.00 on a Kylo Ren lightsaber or waste hours reading 50 Shades of Grey; nevertheless, whenever God looks upon you, the Father will always see Mary’s Son,” I said.
“But I’ve got to believe in it first, right?” he said.
“Only in the sense that there’s nothing for you to do but believe it. It’s his faithfulness that justifies you before God not your faith in him,” I said.
And, just like that, we’d landed and were waiting for the seats in front of us to empty.
“Maybe you wouldn’t make a completely terrible preacher,” he said, “Except…”
“Except what?” I asked.
“Aren’t ministers all dull and creepy?”
I laughed and said… “pretty much.”
“I bet we’d all be less stressed out at Christmas,” he said, “and less judgmental about how much or how little we’re supposed to spend on gifts if we all believed that we’re the reason for all the celebrating,” he said and then clipped his teeth like he was biting off the rest his sentence.
“It all feels too convenient, too good to be true.”
“I’m not making it up,” I said.
“It’s right there in the nativity story. The celebrating starts in heaven. Don’t you see, you’re the gift God gives to himself at Christmas.”
He smiled and said, “Merry Christmas.”
And then we went our separate ways.