Let me say right now that I do not subscribe to the current “War on Christmas.” It is a fabrication created by a partisan media desperate for an audience. I believe there was a war on Christmas, once, long ago – a calculated attack by the retail industry, supported by the marketing sector and sponsored by manufacturing moguls, in order to appropriate a holiday celebrated by most Americans and turn it into a festival of voracious spending. These factions created a sacrament of gift-giving, concocted our modern Santa Claus from the very saintly Nicholas of Myra, and replaced the Light of the World with blow-up nativity scenes that pay lip-service to Jesus being the “reason for the season.”
We lost that “War on Christmas” because we never fought back. It was easier to celebrate the coming of Christ by buying a present or sending a card, than it was to continue working to bring about Christ’s Kingdom in this world. More money spent replaced more time spent with loved ones, a kind of guilt tax we pay each year. As the richest country on the planet, we embraced the opulence and consumerism and sheer gluttony this day has become, because we could afford it – and we did it in the name of keeping our economy strong. The War on Christmas was lost decades ago because Christians sold it for a few sentimental movies and some Hallmark ornaments.
You’re saying to yourself that I’m a Scrooge – a Christmas cynic. You’d be right. I am cynical about Christmas, and oftentimes I commiserate with Ebenezer about this holiday. Rushing from store to store, desperately searching for presents that most folks I know don’t need, hours of baking and wrapping and decorating – What is it all about? It certainly doesn’t seem to be about Jesus at all. And we want it to be. Christmas seems to be about equating the number of presents with how much we love each other. I want to scream over the holiday Muzak to all the shoppers lingering in endless lines, walking like zombies through aisles of overstocked Christmas sweaters, “Go back! It’s is a TRAP!”
Before you become too concerned about my humbug attitude toward Christmas, keep in mind that the one who is most cynical is often the one who believes most ardently in miracles. The one who hopes the highest always has the deepest wounds. And the one who is lost in the over-indulgence of the season is the one longing to find the Christ child.
Mary and Joseph lost Jesus. They were entrusted with the child of God and they lost him. Talk about a stressful holiday. Jerusalem was filled to brimming with pilgrims during the Passover Festival. Hundreds of thousands of people flooded into the city each year to visit the Temple and make their sacrifices before God during this high holy day in the Jewish year. For the previous eleven years, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus caravanned with their family and friends from Nazareth to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Each year, they stayed close together, watched out for each other’s children, kept guard over each other’s belongings, and safely returned home each time. Until that year – the year Jesus turned twelve. Eleven years Jesus went to Jerusalem and came back home, with all ten fingers and all ten toes. He was old enough to know better. He knew the routine. But that year, he stepped away.
For those of us who are parents, the thought of our child stepping away makes our blood run cold. We know what’s out there. We know what dangers a twelve-year-old boy would face alone in a big city with no place to lay his head. We know who would take advantage of a lost child. Mary and Joseph were a day’s journey away from Jerusalem before they made the discovery that Jesus was not with them. By the time they got back to Jerusalem, their son had been missing for two days. They spent the next three days, sick with fear, looking throughout all of Jerusalem for any trace of their little boy.
Where did they look for him during those three days? Were there street performers he loved to watch, laughing and clapping at the way they worked the crowd? Was there a special place in the market that sold toys or sweets or puppies? Did they try all the hotels for a kind soul who might have put him up for the night, just like a kind soul did on the night he was born? I wonder why they didn’t try the Temple first. He must have hinted that he liked the Temple, otherwise he wouldn’t have asked why they were looking for him. It was the last place they looked. There, sitting among the scholars, was a twelve-year-old Jesus, keeping up with theological and philosophical conversations that should have been well over his head. And he was loving it. It’s a wonder Mary only yelled at him. My mother would have jerked a knot in me.
I also wonder how Jesus knew that Joseph was not his father. Maybe he grew up in a very open home, always knowing, always aware that Joseph was his step-dad. Maybe Mary and Joseph had a long talk with him when he was a bit older, when he could understand the unique situation of his birth. Maybe they asked Jesus to keep his parentage a family secret, like so many families do, in order to avoid the smirks and whispers of neighbors. Whatever the reason, Mary called Joseph Jesus’ father in front of everyone at the Temple, and Jesus, knowing this wasn’t true, corrected her, without concern for what anyone else thought. He wasn’t embarrassed that he missed his ride. He didn’t even seem to understand why Mary and Joseph were so worried that he was missing for nearly a week. Because twelve-year-old Jesus never considered himself lost. He assumed he was where he was supposed to be. He was about his Father’s business, and the business wasn’t carpentry, it was ministry.
Jesus has never been, nor is he now, lost. You cannot lose something that is forever found, you cannot hide something that refuses to be hidden. If we cannot find Jesus in the middle of the holiday pandemonium, then we, like Mary and Joseph, are looking in the wrong place.
The story of the boy Jesus in the Temple sets up the rest of the Gospel of Luke and the places where Jesus finds his ministry. Jesus goes to a town or a village to teach or heal or rest or meditate and someone, often times a religious leader or one of the disciples, always tells him that he’s in the wrong place. Whether he’s speaking in Nazareth or hanging out at a wild party, whether he’s healing on the Sabbath or getting his feet washed by a prostitute, whether he’s sleeping on a boat during a storm or having dinner with a tax collector – Jesus is scolded throughout this gospel for being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people doing the wrong things. And each time, Jesus reminds everyone around him that he is indeed in the right place, doing the right things for the right reasons. He is about his Father’s business.
It’s easy to be cynical in a world where money equals power, where our politicians are millionaires concerned with their own interests, and our religious leaders are regularly caught with their pants down. It’s easy to abandon hope in a country where every photo is staged, every story has a motive, and every article is biased. It’s easy to give up looking for authenticity when we are lost in the labyrinth of commercialism, where everyone and everything – even the sacred things – have a price. We are fed nothing but lies and selective facts to keep us mollified, so when we taste the truth it is almost too rich to bear.
Here is the truth: Jesus is never lost. If you want to find Jesus, you must look where God’s business lies. There you will find the Christ. You won’t find Jesus under a Christmas tree, but you will find him under a bridge with the homeless or in a trailer with refugees. You’ll not find him wrapped in festive ribbons, but you’ll find him wrapped in hand-me-downs and thrift-store coats, waiting in line at the local food pantry. You’ll not find Christ lighting up the skylines of our cities, but you will find him lighting hospital rooms were machines mete out life support for those who cannot afford health care. You’ll find Jesus in the deepest prison cell and the darkest alleyway, in a closet where a scared child hides from her abuser and in a dank hotel room where a young man struggles with his addiction – because that’s where our humanity needs God the most. In the darkest place the light shines brightest – that is where Jesus is about his Father’s business.
During the season we sing of Emmanuel. It means “God with us,” as in God next to us, God holding us, God rooting for us, God becoming one of us – even the least of us.
Despite my cynicism, I do believe in Christmas, only because I believe in Emmanuel. At the end of A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge says, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year,” so I call all of us to keep a vigilant watch for Jesus wherever we go, and to recognize that the busy-ness of the holidays is not the Father’s business. The business Jesus give himself over to is our humanity, screwed-up and broken and in need of redemption. It is the true foundation of our faith. It is the reason for this season. Jesus’ business is our business as well. The frantic anxiety we feel this season isn’t because there’s a war on Christmas. It’s because we think we’ve lost Christ. But that isn’t so, we’ve just not looked in the right places.
May it be so in the coming year that we are granted the gift of finding Christ in the most surprising of places. May we have eyes to see and ears to hear Christ in our neighbor, Christ in our enemy, Christ in the least of us, and Christ in ourselves. Amen.
Sermon preached at the Hermitage on December 27, 2015.