It was Christmas, and I was beholding a holiday spectacle of neatly wrapped and colorful presents. There were scarlet red boxes with shiny gold bows, gifts wrapped with glittery snowflake paper and white lace ribbons, presents in candy cane peppermint stripes, packages in brown craft paper with festive yarn creations attached, and some that displayed words like peace, love, hope, joy, and Jesus. I was taking it all in - a festive visual gala with hundreds of perfect packages that sparkled, glistened, and glowed with Christmas.
It was not a Christmas party, holiday gathering, or community event. I was standing in the middle of freeway I680, one of the busiest freeways in the Bay Area, where hundreds of Christmas presents were strewn and scattered over four lanes from a multiple-vehicle collision. The accident included a US Postal Service truck carrying Christmas packages that overturned on its side at a high rate of speed, skidding across the freeway, and slamming into a large freeway signpost. The front cab was wrapped around the post entrapping the driver, with both his legs torn from his body below the waist.
The pressure on his torso and hip from the crumpled steel of his cab frame pinched his circulation, which kept him from bleeding to death. Paramedics and firefighters worked relentlessly at this insuperable and time-consuming extrication, while the driver was screaming in agony and pleading for his life. The man was finally unbound from the vehicle and airlifted to the nearest trauma center only to succumb to his injuries despite heroic efforts to save him. It was a surreal scene to witness such carnage and gruesome suffering surrounded by sparkling Christmas presents with words like peace, joy, and Jesus.
The month of December is always strenuous for first responders with the uptick of emergencies and tragedies. Researchers that analyzed 25 years of death certificates in the United States discovered that the two-week Christmas holiday is one of the deadliest. From my own twenty years of experience as a first responder chaplain, I have found this to be true. There is a spike of emergencies, tragedies, suicides, accidents, domestic violence, calamities, and casualties during the holiday season. Sacred holidays around the world such as Christmas are flashpoints for religious conflict, hatred, shootings, and violence.
Christmas commemorates the birth of Jesus. Though he was given the title of “prince of peace,” Jesus was born into a distressed and violent time and place. One of the farthest corners of the Roman Empire, Judea was a land of ancient traditions and religious fervor. Decades of Roman rule had brewed deep resentment.
Jesus was born to a family from a village called Nazareth, near the Sea of Galilee. As he was growing up, Judea was collapsing into chaos. Its population had split into hostile groups, political turmoil, and religious unrest. Jesus grew up in an extremely volatile region of the world and time of history, which included the War of Varus, First Judean War, and the Archelaean Revolt.
Herod the Great was the Roman client king of Judea. History has a record of many of Herod’s misdeeds, which included the murder of three of his own sons. The Gospel of Matthew claims that Herod decreed the Massacre of the Innocents, ordering the execution of all male children two years old and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem, a gruesome and bloody campaign to kill the baby Jesus. During the lifetime of Jesus his country entered a period of revolution and violence that in many ways foreshadowed the Jewish War in 66 AD, which led to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. Historian of antiquity, Josephus, claimed that 1,100,000 people were killed during the siege, and 97,000 were captured and enslaved.
The distress, volatility, and violence of the world existed before the birth of Jesus, after his birth and throughout his life, and continued after Jesus’ death. If you read this morning’s news headlines, you will notice not much has changed. Right now, there is hatred, starvation, poverty, war, oppression, environmental destruction, racism, genocide, and a lengthy list of other maladies in our world with the COVID icing on top. As a first responder chaplain I frequently encounter chaos, tribulation, and suffering. I have experienced difficulty, hardship, grief, and heartache in my own personal life, as I’m sure you have as well in some form or another.
There is quite a long history to this madness. God had barely finished declaring all things as good, before Adam and Eve decided it was not good enough and started following their ego. Paradise was abruptly and prematurely cut short when Cain drove a knife into his brother, Abel, killing him.
Despite everything, Jesus insisted that God’s perfect kingdom had already come. When he was challenged on this, he only doubled down on his claim. In fact, if you had to pin Jesus down to one primary idea that he proclaimed throughout his life it would be that the kingdom of God had arrived. There is a story in the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus is asked by a group of religious leaders when they could expect God’s kingdom to come. Jesus answered that it already had. These clergymen felt humiliated. As the religious elite, how possibly could they have missed something as monumental as the coming of the kingdom of God??? They pointed out to Jesus that they could see no such kingdom.
What they were expecting as God’s kingdom was political liberation from Roman rule.
But Jesus had a different understanding and told them that the kingdom of God was already in their midst because it was fully intact and present within them. In other words, Jesus was teaching them that the reality of true peace, harmony, freedom, security, wellbeing, and flourishing was already present inside them. These professional preachers and Torah scholars had obviously missed that being made in the image of God meant they were lacking no good thing.
This image of God teaching was both liberating and confrontive. It was liberating to know that what we most deeply long for in our hearts and souls is already present within us, and IS us. Our underlying and true nature is composed of the essence of God. The confrontive part is the realization that waiting around for God to fix the world or airlift us out of it, is unnecessary and delusional thinking. The only reason why there is evil, hatred, war, violence, and suffering in the world is because of what we do to each other based upon our ignorance, disbelief, or denial of the truth of who we are. Humanity is to blame.
In the New Testament Book of James, this truth is deconstructed in an instructive way. James writes, “Why do you fight and quarrel? It is because your feelings are fighting inside of you. That is why you fight. You want something but you cannot get it. Then you kill. You want something very much and cannot get it. So you quarrel and fight.” Do you see it? The discord, disharmony, division, and hostility in the world is a manifestation of greed, anger, envy, bitterness, resentment, and jealousy within ourselves. Humanity is to blame.
We are good at making excuses for the condition our world and pretending we do not have the capacity to change it. People want Jesus to save the world because we do not have the guts to save it ourselves. Too often, religion is an impediment to taking responsibility for the world by telling us that we are weak and powerless on our own. The point of Jesus was never that he was going to save the world, but to point us to the power and authority to do so inside ourselves. Jesus leads us who follow into the realm of love, grace and joy which is saving the world now. That kingdom of God’s reign is at hand.
People often wonder why God allows so much suffering and hardship in the world. Instead we should be wondering why we do. Religion cannot solve this dilemma. Religion creates a litany of rules, rituals, doctrines, and practices that only serve to create an artificial standard of righteousness to make us feel better about ourselves. Jesus exposed the bankruptcy of religion in his Sermon on the Mount. He said the standard of holiness is not abstaining from an act of murder, like Cain murdering Abel. Jesus said true holiness is to hold no malevolent thoughts, harmful intentions, or ill-will against another human being. That is God’s kingdom – the absence of all such hatred, and the presence of love, compassion, peace, goodness, benevolence, joy, generosity, harmony, and goodwill.
The central message of Jesus was, “Repent for the kingdom of God has come.” The conventional religious understanding of these words of Jesus could be paraphrased as follows, “The final reckoning is near, it's time to get right with God.” This flawed interpretation is largely based upon the unfortunate translation of a Greek word, which was transcribed as “repent” in English. “Repent” usually means to turn away from one’s sinful ways or else be subject to the judgement and wrath of God. However, the actual Greek word “metanoia” literally means “beyond the mind.” In other words, it means turning toward a new understanding of something in a completely different light and to see something in a way you have never seen before.
In other words, Jesus was saying that God’s kingdom will always be hidden from us as long as we think of it as a reality that God will download into our circumstances or beam us up into though miraculous intervention. One of the profound insights of Jesus was that it is not necessary to escape or vacate this world to find true peace, and wellbeing. He proclaims that we can turn away to a new way of understanding humanity and ourselves as God’s children.
Jesus challenged people instead to see the kingdom of God as a fully intact and accessible reality within ourselves, and one we could birth into our world through our mindsets, attitudes, words, actions, choices, and decisions. Being made in the image of God means we also share in the ability to create worlds of harmony, peace, and beauty. There is a supernatural element which plays a consistent role in our spirituality which, even though profoundly mysterious, is at work in our lives.
Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus into the world. The rightful way to honor this sacred remembrance is by giving birth to his vision of the kingdom of God through our daily lives. Jesus lived and died for this vision and taught that when he was gone that the spirit of this vision and the power to complete would be alive in our hearts.
Our world will always include some hardships and difficulties. There are natural disasters, illness and disease, accidents and misfortunes, and death, loss, and grief. The factors that cause and contribute to these occasions are often outside our control. Imagine how different our world would be if all hatred, envy, greed, malice, hostility, and ill-will were vanquished, and replaced with love, compassion, goodness, generosity, kindness, accord, and goodwill. Every day we blame God, Satan or others for the evils and tragedies in our world, but what if we got more interested in the suffering we ourselves are causing every day and thus pursued the way of Jesus with red hot desire.
Driving home that December evening from the freeway melee, scattered Christmas presents, and the gruesome trauma of that truck driver, Christmas songs were playing on the radio. I680 is typically a traffic nightmare, even without the backup from the freeway collision. I kept the Christmas songs going in hopes of a holiday mood change. It seems like there is a standard package of holiday songs that radio stations always play. I think I heard them all. Let’s see: All I Want for Christmas is You by Mariah Carey; Rockin Around the Christmas Tree by Brenda Lee; Jingle Bell Rock by Bobby Helms; A Holly Jolly Christmas by Burl Ives; Little Saint Nick by the Beach Boys, and an assortment of celebrity Christmas songs sung by anyone ranging from Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and Beyoncé.
But sitting there in a sea of unmoving traffic, an old Amy Grant Christmas song came on entitled, Grown Up Christmas List. You have probably heard it. The song recalls how we as children would create a Christmas wish list of the special gifts we hoped Santa would deliver on Christmas day. The lyricist continues by stating that although they had outgrown their childhood fantasies of Santa Claus, flying reindeer, and toys dragged down a chimney, they still carry a different kind of wish list in their heart - a grown up Christmas list.
The lyrics read,
“So here's my lifelong wish
My grown-up Christmas list
Not for myself but for a world in need
No more lives torn apart
That wars would never start
And time would heal all hearts
And everyone would have a friend
And right would always win
And love would never end, no
This is my grown-up Christmas list
This is my only lifelong wish
This is my grown-up Christmas list”
Those lyrics pierced my heart. I realized sitting there in I680 gridlock that I might have lost my grown-up Christmas list somewhere back there amidst the tragedies, hardships, and heartaches I encountered over many years as a first responder chaplain. If you are not careful you can become jaded, weary of heart, detached, and even lose faith in the sentiments that sparkled on those scattered Christmas presents - peace, hope, joy, Jesus.
Maybe somewhere in life you lost your grown-up Christmas list too. You may not find it in the morning news headlines or even in all our theological explanations for the suffering we find in our world. But maybe we can find and recover it inside our own hearts. Jesus said that was the place to find it.
Nothing against Amy Grant, but this was first Jesus’ grown-up Christmas list. It was a vision he once described as heaven on earth. Jesus once said you had to become like a little child to access and enter the kingdom of God. I think Christmas tends to bring out the child in all of us. Let’s hope so.
-adapted from Used to Go to Church