by Daniel Harrell
I confess I don’t watch nearly as much television as I should. To make up for this, I’ve binge-watched Stranger Things on Netflix, a decision fueled in part by a nostalgia for the 1980s where the show is set. Though not a sci-fi horror fan, my Facebook friends liked it, and as a Minnesota transplant, I was intrigued by the product placement of a vintage purple Brontosaurus hoodie from the Science Museum. The thunder lizard hoodie went viral after the Museum reissued it in November. To date more than 35,000 have been ordered. If you’re still waiting for yours the Museum says its coming.
Stranger Things is a horror tale about four boys and a peculiar girl named Eleven, and their adventures with what’s called the “upside down,” a dark place of alternative reality filled with demagorgons and dragons, not unlike the one my wife Dawn preached about last Sunday from Revelation 12. Revelation takes place in its own upside down, an alternative reality where in chapter 12, a mother gives birth to a child destined to rule the world. There’s a heavenly host of angels, plenty of stars and the evil adversary who seeks to devour this threat to his power. There’s even a flight into the desert—all familiar parts of the Christmas story. Except in Revelation’s nativity scene, there is no silent night, nothing is calm and not much is bright. The angels, rather than announcing peace on earth, wage war in heaven. The stars get wiped from the sky. The flight to the desert occurs not on a mule’s back but on eagle’s wings. And the demonic potentate is Satan, the very devil itself.
The good news is Satan gets tossed out of heaven. The bad news is that the devil’s tossed down to the earth. The dragon chases after mother and child, but is thwarted by God who rescues the child and leads the mother in her escape. Enraged, the dragon makes war on her remaining children. In Matthew’s Christmas story, the maniacal King Herod is the dragon who pursues the child Jesus, perceived as a threat to his throne. Hoodwinked by the Magi and by Joseph tipped off in a dream, the Holy Family escaped to the desert. Enraged, King Herod breathes out his fire on Bethlehem’s remaining children, a horrific slaughter that casts a pall every Yuletide. No tidings of comfort and joy here. King Herod was a wicked king. He slaughtered children and others, including a wife and three sons. His ruthless paranoia knew no bounds. As he lay dying, Herod decreed that a member of every family in his kingdom be executed so to make sure there was widespread grief at his funeral. He knew no one would be crying for him.
Given that I’m following up Dawn’s sermon on Satan with this one about the demonic King Herod, you’re probably concerned about how things go over at our house at Christmas. Pity poor Violet. She has to put up with two preachers as parents.
Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth was a small, backwater village. Archaeologists and historians believe no more than a dozen or so baby boys under age two could have been subject to Herod’s butchery. Still, any comfort this might provide gets dashed once we read it all happened to fulfill “what had been spoken through the prophet,” a not-so-reassuring acknowledgement that God had it all under control. We’d prefer God had it all under better control, to the point of preventing such atrocities at Christmas. But whichever gospel you choose, Christmas will always be associated with somebody trying to kill Jesus. The holy family, already scandalized and homeless, manage to escape a crazy King’s rage, only to return and have Jesus crucified anyway. This too was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophets.
In Bethlehem this Christmas, there’s worry over fallout from President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. This isn’t necessarily new. Congress passed a law back in 1995 requiring the same, it’s just that no President had done it. Many Israelis, Jews and evangelicals rejoice at the decision, while Palestinian Muslims take to the streets in protest. Hamas rattles its rockets in Gaza. The tiny minority of Palestinian Christians in occupied Bethlehem are once again caught in the crossfire. Many of us who’ve traveled to Israel will remember meeting Mitri Raheb, a pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church. He wrote this week how Trump’s decision felt a lot like Caesar’s imperial decree from the Christmas story. Governments have long presumed assume force can make peace. “But we do not believe in the power of Caesar,” Pastor Rahib wrote, “we believe in the power of Christ, born in Bethlehem under occupation and crucified in Jerusalem by [imperial] authorities.”
Gospel power is ironic power: birthed in a borrowed manger and killed on a cross, marginalized and humiliated, “power perfected in weakness,” the Bible calls it, the sufficiency of grace. Bethlehem’s tiny Christian community endures constant political and cultural pressure and humiliation, yet from the margins of Palestinian society, it manages to faithfully and lovingly witness and worship. The Bethlehem Lutheran Church educates deprived children, addresses environmental concerns, promotes peace, works for economic improvement, teaches and feeds and serves Palestinians, whether Arab Christian or Muslim, all of whom currently struggle in the shadow of the huge wall built by the Israeli government to contain them.
Struggling and increasingly marginalized churches in America endure their own pressures, worried over the collapse of Christianity’s political power and cultural influence, along with any moral high ground. Yet viewed through the lens of the gospel, marginalization and loss are prophetic and profound opportunities for renewed faith, service and mission. Fair Anita hires abused women worldwide who craft beautiful jewelry from wartime bullet casings (they made their 10K last Sunday by the way). In politically tumultuous Burundi, Christianity permeates small villages despite government and societal challenges. Orphans, farmers, women and families strive toward a future they never would have thought possible through village savings and loan programs sponsored by churches. Being the church is not for the sake of the church, but for the sake of the world God so loves. By eschewing worldly power and refusing to presume moral superiority; by embracing our marginal calling and doubling down on love, churches tap into gospel power—lost cause Christianity you might call it—freed from any concern for fame or politics or cultural control. Lost cause Christianity, powered by grace, overturned empires and reformed regimes. Lost cause Christianity upended Soviet Communism in Poland and the former Czechoslovakia and throughout Eastern Europe and has gone viral in China and even Iran where ideologies are far more hostile to Christian faith than Enlightenment liberalism has ever been.
Yet manger things come at a cost: humiliation, powerlessness, repression, death. Jesus said you must lose your life to find it. You have to take up a cross to follow. “What good is it to gain the whole world only to forfeit your soul?” he asked.
There are happier approaches. About a dozen years ago Dawn and I were in sunny Southern California where out of curiosity we stopped to visit the Crystal Cathedral, a large, famous church you may remember for its devotion to accentuating the positive for the sake of spiritual fulfillment. The Crystal Cathedral was built and pastored by the ebullient reverend Robert Schuller, a flamboyant preacher whose televised Hour of Power and best-selling books (with titles like “Turning Hearts into Halos” and The Be-Happy Attitudes) reached millions and made millions. A happy attitude pervaded everything at his church when we visited, from the smiling ushers and giddy greeters, to the cheery people manicuring the grounds. The campus featured various sculptures of a jubilant Jesus―one had him merrily strolling across water: a fake pond with lily pads and goldfish. There were no crosses anywhere.
There was a Christmas corner of the campus, of course, and surprisingly, a depiction of the Holy family fleeing to Egypt, hardly the happy part of the Christmas story. Given Matthew’s account, you’d think the artist would have shaped a terrified Mary and fearful running for their lives. Instead, the statue portrayed Mary in her cheerful Southern California best, nice tan and all. But that’s wasn’t the stranger thing. What was really weird about the statue was, well, see for yourself.
Dawn and I tried our best to figure this out. What’s with a metallic baby Jesus? An alien from space? Some kind of bizarre skin infection? We inquired at the visitor’s center, where there were plenty of smiles, but no clue as to why Jesus had a silver sheen. Had nobody ever wondered this before? They happily suggested we try calling the visitor’s information line, which I did, and left a message. When we got home, the information operator kindly returned my call and merrily informed me how the metallic design was inspired by Jesus as the “light of the world.” The shiny finish not only allowed for the California sun to brightly bounce off baby Jesus (the light part), but it also allowed visitors the opportunity to see their own faces reflected in his face (the world part). (She wasn’t sure why the sculptor chose the flight to Egypt scenario to depict this). The point, she did say, was to remind people how Jesus loves them just as they are. I don’t know. Shiny baby Jesus gave me the creeps. Dawn emailed this picture to a friend who shot back that a person should warn somebody before sending such pictures.
Of course the Crystal Cathedral, a pinnacle in Christendom’s heyday, has long since gone defunct. People can handle only so much happiness, I guess. Like other empires, Dr. Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral Ministries eventually faltered from overambitious growth, lavish spending and crushing debt, a rapidly changing religious landscape, an aging audience, interfamily division and strife and a badly mishandled succession plan. Never shy about asking for money, the Crystal Cathedral went bankrupt in 2010. Robert Schuller died five years later.
I shake my head trying to figure out why people are so attracted to Crystal Cathedral versions of Christianity, only to conclude that I’m attracted to it myself. I’d rather worship a God who gives me everything I want for Christmas. I want easy peace of mind through possibility thinking, never-ending success and all my hurts to be halos. I want God to love me just as I am without my ever having to change.
Jesus is the light of the world—he beckons us to see our own faces reflected. But true light is harsh and bright, a glory that burns before it warms. As Dietrich Bonheoffer put it, Christ’s coming may be a matter of glad tidings, but first of all, it’s “frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.” “This is the judgment,” Jesus said. “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness more because their deeds were evil. All who do wrong hate the light and do not come to it for fear their deeds will be exposed.” We’ve seen a lot of deeds exposed in recent days: powerful men brought down by harsh light.
To see our true faces in Jesus’ light will give us the creeps. Jesus makes us face our resistance to grace, our refusal to love, our rebellion and infidelity and abuses and sin. Matthew takes a line in our passage from the prophet Hosea: “out of Egypt I called my son.” The allusion is to Moses and the mantle of Jesus inherits as our own rescuer from slavery. But in its context, the allusion is also to a people who take advantage of grace, a people delivered from oppression who turn prodigal. “Out of Egypt I called my son,” says the Lord in Hosea, “But the more I called to him, the farther he moved from me…” Parents know how this goes. Matthew applies Hosea to Jesus, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world by taking our sins on himself. Jesus loves us just as we are because he knows what we can and will be by his grace.
Matthew also quotes Jeremiah and ties Bethlehem to Babylon. Rescued by grace out of Egypt, God’s people turned prodigal and suffered the consequence of their impudence. Our relationship with the Lord can be a constant back and forth, up and down affair between faithfulness and disloyalty, obedience and rebellion, love and indifference. For Israel, the outcome was banishment from their land, loss and utter abandonment, the cause for Rachel’s tears. Rachel was Jacob-slash-Israel’s wife and the matriarchal ancestor of God’s people. Her tears are tied to Bethlehem on account of the devastation both suffered, the road to exile ran through Ramah, not far from Bethlehem, where Rachel’s tomb still remains.
In Jeremiah, Rachel weeps as she watches her posterity carried off into captivity on account of their sin. However, the God who banishes on account of sin does so in order to redeem us from sin. Read on in Jeremiah and you’ll hear the prophet console Rachel with hope. Thus says the Lord: “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for there is hope for your posterity, your children will return to their homeland. … for the time is coming, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. … I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I shall be their God, and they will be my people. … I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more.” Jesus will label his own death as “the blood of the new covenant,” his body broken for us. The next time Christmas angels appear is at Easter where they once again bring good tidings of great joy: The cross of death has become the crux of new life.
This morning the Crystal Cathedral is filled with a new congregation. The shiny building was bought by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County. They’ve renamed the place “Christ Cathedral” and have refurbished the entire 35-acre campus. Being good Catholics I presume they’ve installed a few crucifixes and wiped the silly grins off the other Jesus statues. Christ Cathedral is a vast multi-ethnic congregation that serves the poor and disenfranchised, as well as promoting the arts, music and dance. Last week Christ Cathedral held their annual PastaThon, a fundraiser that feeds pasta dinners to 3,500 hungry kids every day. Every Sunday features worship in Vietnamese, Spanish, English and Chinese. Despite church closures and struggles elsewhere, this lost cause Catholic congregation thrives. They even made space for the Protestant Crystal Cathedral to resurrect from bankruptcy and hold their worship services too. Though it did change its name from Crystal Cathedral to Shepherd’s Grove Church. A humble move.
No matter the fury of dragons or the wickedness of crazed rulers, no matter our own prodigal ways and prodigious sins, Rachel will find her consolation. It’s all packed into Christmas. It fulfills what was spoken by the prophets. Unto you is born a Savior who is Christ the Lord.