Sweet Songs, Cosmic Santas & the Naughty List
‘Tis the season for Jingly music everywhere.
Some people enjoy the 24/7 carol-fest that the season brings, others want to gouge their eyes out with ice-cream scoops and I’ll make a broad-brush statement and say most of us probably fall somewhere in between. Most of the time I am fairly firm in my denial of the existence of Santa’s workshop, but the weird elves living in plain sight among us who claim to “like Christmas music year-round” do make me think it may exist as there is no other explanation for such lunacy.
I have a few favourite carols. O Holy Night is a powerful classic. When sung by a powerhouse vocalist, the lyric that crescendoes “fall on your knees” makes you want to. When sung by a pitchy, shaky vocalist, you still want to fall on your knees for a different reason, so oddly enough, it works both ways.
Carol of the Bells by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra is always good for those of us who like Rock music and think that one of the best ways to bring Christmas cheer is screaming electric violins for all to hear. Elf’s Lament by the BareNaked Ladies is also fantastic. It sticks a candy cane in the wheels of consumerism in a way that helps us laugh at ourselves, which is always more fun than crying.
Mary Did You Know? is also one of my fav’s. This is a tad embarrassing given I have dedicated my life to the study of theology and Luke chapter 1 explicitly states that she did know. Ya well, I don’t listen to the words, I just like the beat – let me listen to it, mom.
Another fun carol is Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Even the Bruce Springsteen version. Sure, it’s a creepy lyric that invites you to imagine an old man watching you sleep and taking a tally on your deeds, deciding whether you deserved that die-cast metal Voltron you really wanted in ’84 or a 3-pak of Bi-Way underwear: the lump-of-coal-equivalent.
For much of my upbringing, “So be good for goodness sake” described how I understood God. That may possibly be the popular cultural summary of Christian faith today. God has a naughty list & a nice list and one has to do enough nice things to get on His nice list. The idea of “God” for anyone raised in tit-for-tat-religiosity is likely, a cosmic Santa.
“So be good for goodness sake” is actually contradictory to the inherent meaning of the word “gospel” and nothing like what biblical history reveals. “Gospel” literally means “good news”. “News”, by its own definition, is not something you do. It is something that happened in the past that has implications for you. Good news has amazing implications for you.
Our first parents used their free will to reject God. Every generation since Genesis is born into a condition of not wanting God, but wanting to be god. That condition is what the bible calls “sin”. In response to this insolent treason, our God endeavoured to write Himself into human history by coming in an act of relentless love that first Christmas – to die for everybody on the naughty list … which is all of us.
Of course, we know that Christ wasn’t born on December 25th and the date isn’t really relevant. Somewhere around 273AD, Origen and other early church fathers, had a concern about the church mixing the worship of pagan gods and identifying God’s Son with the celestial sun. Many cultures around the Mediterranean and across Europe observed feasts on or around December 25th, marking the winter solstice, so the church chose to celebrate Christ in the same season.
The “advent season” is a 4 week celebration leading up to Christmas where as a church, we narrow our gaze on a life-altering event in human history: the incarnation of God. The word advent means “arrival”. The advent is more than merely looking backwards through history on Christ’s past faithfulness to come to save us in grace – we intentionally look forward with hopeful confidence in His future faithfulness to come again to restore all things in grace.
At KW Redeemer we’ve been unpacking the prophecies in Isaiah written 700 years before Christ was born in Bethlehem. These messages of hope put God’s grace on display because they came in utterly dark, hopeless times. The children of God turned away from God, adopted ideologies and practices of their surrounding culture and ended up in captivity. Right in the midst of their sinful, self induced free fall into oppression – God promised redemption.
These texts usually start out quite dark. Sin is like an undertow in the human heart, the root cause behind evil, injustice, suffering in all forms – sin is dark. If we’re honest, there are corners in all our hearts that are dark. As we read the Scriptures, the Scriptures read us. We, like the children of God generations before us, can turn away. We may not deny Him, but if we take a moment in quiet reflection, it won’t take us long to find ways we dethrone Him. The good news of the gospel is that our God specializes in deliverance from the dark. The same God who said “let there be light“, promised to break into our darkness with His light.
God diagnosed humanity as hopeless without Him and so He promised deliverance in grace, to unite us to Him. A lot of Old Testament texts are heavy. Contrary to naive modern opinions that the church should unhinge from the Old Testament because it is heavy, the Old Testament repeatedly points to the fact that Jesus Christ specializes in deliverance from heavy. He is Immanuel – God with us.
The gospel helps us understand the Old Testament through a cross-shaped lens, revealing that though the trajectory of all life ends in death & darkness, our God, in a scandalous contradiction of what we al deserve, came in saving grace to intercept our trajectory toward death & darkness and exchange it with His life & light. Trust me, I know a lot about interceptions – I pull for the Giants. I’ll be here all week, folks.
The more I contemplate all this, the more I think that the wonder of the first Christmas is that there WAS a first Christmas. If someone lets us down, hurts us, rejects us repeatedly, we don’t move toward them – we distance ourselves from them to protect ourselves from further pain. Our grace has limits. God’s grace on the other hand, is otherworldly.
Over and over throughout the Scriptures, you have the children of God committing the classic human trope: first we reject God. Then we try and be god. Then we wreak havoc because we aren’t god. Then we blame God for the living nightmare we created playing god. Then we yell in His face and in an accusatory tone and spew, “where are you God???” And God’s response is to come toward us with forgiving grace – over and over and over...
I’ll give you one example. Isaiah 59 gives us some striking imagery of a soul that rejects its maker. It depicts that soul as one who eats viper eggs, then dies, then the eggs hatch and snakes come out of their corpse – oh but meanwhile they tried to cover themselves in their works which doesn’t work, so their deeds are described as spider webs. While that’s darker than the 3rd act in Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, the prophecy ends with an undeserved promise of saving grace.
There is a New Testament passage that sheds light on the grace promised repeatedly throughout the Old Testament:
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:6-8
The reason we can speak about the “wonder” of Christmas without that word being an utter cliche’, is that God delivered us with hope that was more powerful than a better situation. If Christian hope was nothing more than a better situation, our hearts would never rest because something is always threatening our situation. The human experience is fragile. “Hope” that first Christmas was not a better situation for all of us, but Immanuel – God with us. Our hearts enjoy true rest because threatening situations don’t threaten our hope – they drive us into our hope.
Between the last book in the Old Testament & first book in the New Testament there were 400 years worth of silent nights. God did not speak. But that first Christmas day, when the Christ child took His first breath, God broke His silence. The Redeemer had come.
The voice that spun the universe into existence and thundered on mount Sinai, cried in a manger in Bethlehem. One day, He would cry out again on a Roman Cross.
This promise of hope came to the people of God when life was hard and their hearts were heavy. Christ is your hope when your life is hard and your heart is heavy.
The hope filled manager in the New Testament, is God’s answer to the recurring hopelessness we see in the Old Testament. The manger makes the message of God’s grace abundantly clear: We don’t meet God ½ way. We Can’t meet God ½ way. He came all the way.
Listen to KW Redeemer’s Advent series here.