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’m a fan of all music except Jesus-is-my-Boyfriend Christian Music or that Baby-Making Smooth Jazz that Dennis likes to play in his office, which makes the sofa bed in there all the creepier.
I love music; in fact, during college I DJ’d for a radio station. When you have a voice like mine- a voice so sexy, erudite and virile 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 Hall ‘N’ Oates. I really don’t get the Journey thing, people.
I love music. Some of my most vivid memories are aural. Ali’s and my first kiss was to U2’s ‘With or Without You.’
Cliche, I know.
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 Ronald Moore has credible accusers.
We love music in my house.
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.
There’s no ‘Let It Snow’ by Dean Martin or Rod Stewart, no drek like Neil Diamond singing ‘Jingle Bell Rock and no aesthetic-corroding ‘Christmas’ by Michael Bubble. Save the Amy Grant for the Dentist’s Office.
No, any savior worthy of our worship should be anticipated and celebrated with the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Nick Lowe, and Wynton Marsalis.
The 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 tightens Ali’s sphincter and fills her 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: what’s a pastor doing condoning- advocating even- a song about Santa Claus?
Shouldn’t a pastor be putting Christ back in X’mas? Shouldn’t a pastor be on the front lines with Roy Moore, rebuffing the enemy’s advances in the War on Christmas?
But I’ve got no beef with Santa Claus.
I mean- what’s not to like about a whiskey-cheeked home invader with Chucky-like elves on shelves 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 capitalists, to want, want, want, to believe that it’s the gift not the thought that matters, but I don’t have a problem with Santa.
I don’t think its pagan or idolatrous. Nope, 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 never had a problem with Santa Claus.
Until one day 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, 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,’ his voice trailed off, ‘we’re good.’
And just like that….that Ted Kennedy-complected fat man with the diminutive sweatshop slaves and the sleeping-with-the-enemy spouse was dead to me.
“…so you better be good…”
For goodness sakes, Santa songs are just one example of the strings we attach to God’s gift of grace.
They’re just one example of how we muddle the Gospel with conditions.
Take Krampus, for instance, a 17th century Austrian tradition 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 Goat-Demon 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, St. Nick travels not by sleigh but by boat accompanied not by elves or reindeer but by 6-8 black men.
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 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” (David Sedaris).
But Santa and his former slaves seem to have worked it out fine.
In any case, 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 beat the child with sticks, and if a child has been especially naughty, Santa’s formerly-enslaved pals throw the kid into a sack and carry him away from his home forever.
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.
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 and as creepy as that doll from Annabelle, sit perched in your home from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, judging your child’s behavior before returning to the North Pole to narc on them to St. Nick.
So not only are gifts conditioned upon your child’s merit, you also get to encourage your child to bond with a magical elf friend for nearly a month so that then, long before they go through their first nasty break-up or divorce, your child can experience betrayal when their elf friend absconds northwards to rat them out to Santa.
It’s like John says: For God so loved the world he sent a little Judas to sit on your shelf…
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 rest of the year.
The conditions we attach to Christmas with characters like Krampus 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 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 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.
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, pornography, drug addition, war, or health insurance companies.
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 a Gospel that is Law.
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 do know- getting us to believe that God’s gift of 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 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 his only begotten Son…’
And you can ask Tim Tebow, the word ‘world’ in John’s Gospel has no positive connotations at all; therefore, it emphasizes the unconditional nature of the gift.
God so loved the world- the sinful, wicked, messed up, broken, violent, naughty world- that he didn’t check anything twice or even keep a list, he so loved- so loves- us, undeserving us, that he gave all of himself to us in Jesus Christ in order to list our names in the book of life.
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 your penalties have been paid.
The IOU on your debt has been folded over and someone with enough riches to cover it for you has signed his name- that’s what the prophet Isaiah means when he refers to our receiving double for all our sins.
The invoice has been folded over, doubled, and signed by a surrogate.
Krampus is not Christmas 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 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, the forgiveness of all your sins and Christ’s own complete righteousness, is true whether you ever open it or not.
You see, 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.
Obviously the gift changes lives. The gift changed my life- and not in a good way. I’d have preferred to go to law school.
Yes, this gift can change lives but the power of this gift to change lives is not the promise we proclaim- because what God has done in Jesus Christ for you is true for you whether or not it changes your life.
For goodness sake, the truth of God’s salvation is not tied to your subjectivity.
The promise we proclaim is not what God’s gift can do in your life. The promise we proclaim is what God has done to forgive and redeem and save your life.
And this is important to remember- pay attention now- because most people today think Christianity is a message about people getting better, that the Christian faith is intended to improve your life, 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 and Soul Cycle can make you a better you.
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 improve your life, no doubt, but your therapist cannot redeem you from Sin and Death.
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 here to hear that we’ve been rescued from our badness.
The prophet Isaiah paints a pretty grim picture of who we are and our situation before God. According to Isaiah, we don’t need a life coach; we need a savior.
Even if it’s what you came here looking for, you don’t need life lessons or advice or to be told to get your act together because the message of Isaiah, and all of the Bible for that matter, is that we cannot get our act together.
That’s why the language Isaiah uses in chapter 40 is not exhortation: Do Better! Be better! The language Isaiah uses is the language of exodus: You’ve been delivered!
Christ does not come to show us the highway to a holy God.
Christ comes to be the highway: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
He is our goodness.
He is our faithfulness and virtue.
He is our exodus.
And we are led in the path of holiness not by following in his steps but in him, by being incorporated into him in our baptism.
The Gospel according to Isaiah is that our salvation is not found within us.
No matter what your life looks like, whether you resemble Christ or Krampus, how good or bad you are is beside the point because you are on that holy highway to God because Christ is the highway and by faith through your baptism you are in him.
And because you’ve been baptized into him who is the highway-
You can never wander
You can never go astray.
You can never be lost.
So this Christmas-
Whenever “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” comes on 91.9, here’s my advice: Turn it off.
And when your children ask why you did so, use it as a teachable moment to inform them that that particular song was written by Legion, Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, the Devil himself and you don’t want to play that song on the radio because maybe then the Devil will hear it and come for them.
Just a piece of advice.
And if you put your kids on Santa’s lap this season, then here’s another, out of the box, suggestion:
Stand your ground.
Stick a shiv to Santa’s bourbon belly and force him to tell your kids that the gossip’s got him all wrong.
He’s not watching every move they make and he’s not making a list because Santa already knows they’re 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 tell that 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 tattling rat was going to snitch on them to Santa, and so- like Christ crushing the head of the serpent- you interceded for them (Paul Koch).
And you killed the elf instead.
Tell them you killed the elf.
Tell them you killed that accusing elf because you love them.
And the gift of Christmas is theirs regardless of their goodness.
I offer it to you, in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.