The Etta James at the end of the sermon got cut off from the audio, but we got the rest…
Due to the #metoo movement, this year everyone has been up in arms about the Christmas standard “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” I get it.
Though, I’m not so sure— as Christians, that that is the song that should bother us. As Christians. We listen to a lot of music in my house. Even though I can’t carry a tune, strum a chord or eyeball a flat from a sharp, that doesn’t stop me from being a music fan. And by fan, obviously, I mean a snobby, elitist, smarty-pants.
I love music; in fact, during college I DJ’d for a radio station. When you have a voice like mine— a voice so manly it practically comes with chest hair— disc jockeying was a natural part-time job to which I was the only applicant. I’m such a music lover that when the radio station went belly-up a few months after I started DJ-ing (coincidence), I took the trouble to make sure all of the station’s albums found a good home.
In my apartment.
Every last album.
‘Every’ except Journey and Kenny Loggins. I really don’t get the Journey thing, people, but maybe— maybe on a night celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, maybe Kenny Loggins is exactly who we should be talking about?!
I love music. Some of my most vivid memories are aural. My wife Ali and I first kissed to U2’s ‘With or Without You.’
You have be on the hopeless downward slope of 40 to know how much that’s a cliche.
Our first song on our first night in our first ever apartment was Ryan (not Bryan) Adam’s ‘Firecracker,’ and the first time I realized I had just preached an entire worship service with my fly down the band was playing the praise song ‘Forever Reign.’
I love music. I use ticket stubs for bookmarks. I’ve got concert posters on every wall of our house, and I’ve got more songs in iCloud than the Washington Redskins have holes in their starting lineup.
We love music in my house.
We love Christmas carols too.
We’ve got 311 of them, but none of them are the obvious, bourgeoisie carols that play on repeat at Starbucks starting on Epiphany of the previous year.
My boys and I— our favorite Christmas song is Bob Dylan’s emphysemic rendition of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town.’
Favorite because it drives Ali crazy— nails-on-chalkboard-kind-of-crazy.
Seriously, nothing fills Ali’s eyes with hints of marital regret like Bob Dylan wheezing his way like an asthmatic kitty through that particular Santa song.
Now, I know what some of you might be thinking— compared to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” what’s the matter with “Santa Claus is Coming to Town?”
I mean— what’s not to like about a whiskey-cheeked home invader with Chucky-like elves creepily casing your joint all through Advent?
If nothing else, Santa at least gives us one night a year when no one in the NRA is standing their ground. That just may be the true miracle of Christmas.
And sure, Santa uses an alchemy of myths to condition our children into being good, little consumers but— don’t mishear me— I love Santa.
I do— in fact, I think wonder, imagination and fantasy are a great and normal part of a healthy childhood, and I even think wonder, imagination and fantasy are necessary ingredients for faith.
So I’ve always loved Santa Claus.
Until one day— this was a couple of years ago.
We had our Christmas Carol Playlist on shuffle and Bob Dylan’s lung cancer cover of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ came on the stereo.
And when Dylan came around to the chorus a second time, my son Gabriel said— to himself as much as to me:
‘I’ve been naughty some this year. God might not send Santa to bring me presents this Christmas.’
‘What? What are you talking about?’ I asked, looking up at him.
‘He watches all the time,’ he said, ‘to see if we’re naughty or if we’re good. He only brings presents if we’re good.’
‘Wait, what’s that got to do with God?’
‘Well, Christmas is Jesus being born and Jesus is God and Santa brings presents at Christmas so God’s the one who sends Santa if we’re good.’
“…so you better be good…”
I know it sounds like I’m just being silly, but I’m not.
For goodnesssake, Santa songs are just one example of the strings we attach to God’s gift of grace.
Our cultural myths and holiday songs are just one example of how we muddle the Gospel with conditions.
Take Krampus, for instance, a 17th century Austrian myth wherein a half-goat/half-demon called Krampus would accompany Santa Claus on his jolly sleigh ride in order to scare and terrorize the bad children.
Gifts if you’ve been good.
A terrifying demonic goat creature if you’ve been naughty.
Seriously, somewhere along the way some Christians in Austria thought Krampus up and thought to themselves: “Jah, that jives with the Gospel.”
In Holland, according to a Dutch myth, St. Nick travels not by sleigh but by boat, accompanied not by elves or reindeer but by 6-8 black men— I’m not making this up.
Until the 1950’s, these 6-8 black men were referred to as “Santa’s slaves” but now they’re just considered good friends.
I’m no expert, but I think history has proved that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet hours beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility.
Nonetheless, in Holland, Santa and his former slaves seem to have worked it out fine.
In any case, it gets worse— Santa travels with an entourage of slaves-turned-buddies because if a Dutch child has been bad, then on Christmas Santa’s 6-8 black men… don’t spare the rod…and if a child has been especially naughty, Santa’s formerly-enslaved pals throw the kid into a sack and abscond away with him.
Gifts if you’ve been good.
Assault and battery and kidnapping if you’ve been bad.
That sounds amazingly like grace.
It’s easy for us to poke fun at creepy, antiquated, anti-Christ traditions like Krampus, but, then again, since 2005 parents have purchased millions of elves for their shelves. Don’t worry, I’m not going to shame you by asking you to raise your hands if you’ve bought one (Pat Vaughn).
According to the accompanying children’s book, The Elf on the Shelf, by Carole Aebersold, these nanny-cam scout elves, looking as thin as heroin addicts, sit perched in your home from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, watching and judging and keeping score of your child’s behavior before returning to the North Pole to narc on them to St. Nick.
It’s like St. John says in the Gospel: For God so loved the world he sent a little Judas to sit on your shelf…
You better watch out, Krampus, 6-8 black men, Elf on the Shelf- it would all be innocent and funny if this wasn’t how we spoke Christian the other 364 days of the year.
The conditions we attach to Christmas with characters like Krampus and songs like “Santa Claus is Coming” are the same strings we tie onto the Gospel all the time:
God in Jesus Christ has given his life for you, but first you must believe.
The balance sheet of everything you’ve wrought wrong in your life has been reckoned right— not by anything you’ve done, by God’s grace— but you must serve the poor, pray, go to church, give to the church.
Just talk to anyone who’s been asked for a pre-nup, the word ‘but’ changes a promise into a threat.
God forgives all your sins but first you must have faith.
That’s not a promise.
That’s a threat: If you don’t have faith, God will not forgive your sins.
How we speak at Christmas in naughty vs. nice, if/then conditionality— it’s how we (mis)speak Christian all the time, turning promise into threat.
No wonder people don’t like coming to church.
We offer them an unconditional promise with one hand, and then we take it away with the other hand.
If you repent…then God will love you.
If you believe…then God will have mercy on you.
If you do good, if you become good…then God will save you.
And if you don’t?
“Santa Claus is Coming to Town” was written for the Eddie Cantor Radio Show in 1934 by John Frederick Coots.
You might already know this but John Frederick Coots is a pseudonym, a pen-name, for Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness.
I’m only half-joking.
In his fable The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis has the devil catechize his minion, Wormwood, by teaching him that the best way to undermine Christianity in the world is not through direct and obvious attacks, like injustice, drug addiction, war, health insurance companies, Daniel Snyder, or Verizon wireless.
No, the best way to undermine Christianity, the Devil says, is by simply confusing the Church’s core message about who Christ is and what Christ has done, once for all; so that, the Devil’s work is done without Christians ever even noticing it— until the Church is left with a Christ-less Christianity and an unconditional promise called Gospel that is all conditions and obligations.
If you went to an Elf on the Shelf book-signing, I don’t know if author Carole Aebersold would smell like sulfur. I don’t know if John Frederick Coots really was the Devil in disguise.
But I’m not joking—
I do know— getting us to believe that God’s grace is conditional that is the Devil’s kind of work.
Just read the Gospel of Matthew where the Devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness.
“If you’ll fall down and worship me,” Satan says, “then I’ll give you the kingdom.”
We think we’re speaking Christian at Christmas but, really, we sound like the Devil in the Desert.
It’s Satan who speaks in If/Then conditionality.
It’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ that declares unconditionally that ‘while we were yet sinners, God died for us.’
It’s Satan who speaks in If/Then conditions.
It’s the Gospel that declares unconditionally that ‘God so loved the world that he gave— tonight and on a Friday afternoon—- his only begotten Son…’
This can be your Christmas gift to me:
When you speak about the gift given to us at Christmas, do not sound like Satan.
There’s no ifs. There’s no buts. There’s no strings attached.
There’s just the unconditional promise that-
Yes, you’ve been naughty.
No, you’ve not been nice.
No matter, all the naughty marks on your list have been wiped clean.
“You better watch out?”
No—because the Gospel is that the Lamb was slain so that goats like us might be counted as sheep among God’s faithful flock.
The gift of God given to you tonight and completed on Golgotha, the gift of God given to you in Jesus Christ is not conditional upon your goodness— upon the goodness of your faith or your belief or your character or your contributions to the Kingdom.
By its definition, a gift is determined by the character of the giver not the receiver. Otherwise it’s a transaction; it’s not a gift.
The gift God gives at Christmas is not conditional upon your righteousness.
Nor is the gift God gives at Christmas conditional upon your response to it.
By its definition, a gift elicits a response but it does not require one.
In other words, what’s inside this gift God gives in Jesus Christ, the complete forgiveness of all your sins— as far as the curse is found— the gift of Christ’s own permanent perfect record reckoned to you as your own— like every other gift underneath your tree tonight, this gift is true.
Whether you ever open it or not.
The gift given has nothing to do with how good you are and, no matter what Satan sings in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” the gift does not require that you become good.
For goodness sake, this is important to remember— pay attention now— because most people today think Christianity is a message about people getting better.
Most people think that the Christian faith is intended to improve your life and that the Church is here to help you become good.
Thus, it’s only natural that for many people Christianity would become but one option among many.
You don’t need the Church to become a better you.
Joel Osteen can make you a better you.
Soul Cycle can make you a better you.
Your New Year’s resolutions can make you…no, they won’t.
You don’t need the Church to live your best life now, but you do need the Church- you need it’s promise of the Gospel— to be saved.
Your therapist can repair your life, but your therapist cannot redeem you.
Only faith, the faith proclaimed by the Church, can do that.
The Church is not about learning how to become good (though you might become good in the process).
We’re not here because we need to learn how to be good; we’re here, as Paul’s Letter to the Galatians puts it, to hear that we’ve been rescued from our inability to be good:
“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, under the commandments, in order to redeem those who were under the commandments…”
And speaking of Galatians— just as an aside, I chose this passage tonight because I know there’s a lot of you grown-ups out there who basically think of our Christmas story (with the wise men and the angels and the virgin birth) as just another myth, like Krampus.
I know there’s plenty of you who think the nativity story is just another myth added to the Jesus story later.
But tonight’s passage from Galatians shows you that you can tell the Christmas story without the magi or the shepherds or the inn with no room.
Indeed Christians were telling the story that way from the very beginning.
Tonight’s passage from Galatians is dated by historians to less than a decade after Jesus’ crucifixion, making it almost 100 years older than Luke’s Christmas story— riddle that.
Combine that with the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was only one of tens of thousands crucified by Rome, all of whose names are unknown to us, and the Jewish people to which Jesus belonged did not have as a part of their religion a belief in life after death.
Take all those facts together and I am convinced that had God not raised him from the dead we never would have heard of the Christ child born tonight.
This isn’t a children’s pageant.
We’re not messing around. It’s not a myth.
Christmas is not Krampus.
We’re not here tonight because it’s an uplifting, sentimental story.
We’re here because it’s true.
The Apostle Paul was encountered by Mary’s crucified Son risen from the dead, and according to the message given to the Apostle Paul by the Risen Christ, what you and I need- isn’t a life coach.
We don’t need a teacher or an example, an idea or an inspiration.
We need a savior.
Even if it’s what you came here looking for tonight, you don’t need life lessons or advice or to be told to get your act together because the message of St. Paul, and all of the Bible for that matter, is that we cannot get our act together.
Not one of us— there is no distinction, scripture says.
None of us can get our act together— not one.
That’s why the Apostle Paul and the angel Gabriel describe Christmas as a one-sided, God-sided offensive invasion of our present evil age. God comes to us when we would never come to him, first in a creche and then on a cross.
The cultural myths get it backwards:
God comes to help those who cannot help themselves.
The Christmas Gospel according to St. Paul is that our salvation is not found within us.
That’s why the Bible’s language is not exhortation: Do Better! Be better!
The language the Bible uses is the language of exodus: You’ve been rescued!
Christ is not born to Mary to show us the way to a holy God.
Christ comes to be the way to God.
As St. Paul says:
“God made him to be sin who knew no sin so that you and I might have the righteousness of God.”
He’s taken our naughty list onto himself, once for all.
And his permanent perfect record has been reckoned to you as your own.
And all this is yours by grace.
And it’s not a cheap gift.
It’s not even an expensive gift.
No matter what your life looks like, whether you think deserve coal or a Krampus, how good or bad you, what you’ve done with your life or what you’ve left undone with those in your life.
His goodness is yours.
So it’s too late this year, but next Christmas— just a piece of advice—
If you put your kids on Santa’s lap next season:
Stand your ground.
Convince old St. Nick to fess up and tell your kids that the gossip’s got him all wrong. He’s not like Sting, watching every move they make, and he’s not making a list because Santa already knows those kids are sinners like him.
And he’s bringing them presents no matter what because Christmas is about the niceness of God while we were yet naughty.
And next year tell that little Judas on your shelf to pack it in early.
When the kids wake up some morning looking for their magical narc friend, you tell your kids that you knew how much they misbehaved and that you knew the little whistle-blowing rat was going to snitch on them to Santa, and so— like Christ crushing the head of the serpent— you interceded for them.
And you tell them you found that elf a job as acting secretary at one of the many vacancies in the Trump administration. Tell them you sent that elf packing for DC because you love them and the gift of Christmas is theirs regardless of their goodness.
The gift of Christmas it’s yours regardless of your goodness.
And next year—
Whenever “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” comes on 91.9…
You could use it as a teachable moment to inform them that that particular song was written by Legion, Lucifer, the Enemy and you don’t want to play that song on the radio because maybe then the Prince of Darkness will hear it and come for them.
Or you could just play them a different song, one not obviously about magi or mistletoe, but one that is absolutely about Christmas because it’s about no-matter-what, while-you-were-yet-naughty, blindsiding, one-way love that we call grace.
At last my love has come along
My lonely days are over and life is like a song, oh yeah
At last the skies above are blue…