“Santa Jesus” Advent Devotional
A while back my kids got in their jammies, hopped in the van, and proceeded to sip hot chocolate and munch on popcorn while I drove them around town looking at lights. We began in our own neighborhood, but then eventually steered toward the “wahoo” houses. These are the ones who put up a gabillion lights along with all the latest technology in festive decorations: Ferris wheels, life-sized snow globes, lights that dance with schmaltzy Christmas music, bright diodes.
Eventually we made it to our first wahoo house, and as we parked on the side of the road and went “ooh” and “aahh,” I noticed something that disturbed me a little. Now, I want you to know that when I describe this to you, it’s going to seem innocuous. But that’s exactly my point.
For in the center of the yard was a plastic nativity set. Very simple. Just Mary, Joseph, a faux wooden frame and manger, and the head and hand of baby Jesus peeking out the top of a faux wooden box crowned with straw. But then right next to the manger, as if he was a part of the narrative, gazing down at the babe lying in a manger, was Frosty the Snowman. And on the other side of him were Santa and the elves, waving next to the sleigh. Reindeer frolicked around the nativity, frozen in play. Some creepy clowns were in the backdrop, twirling around on a trapeze. And, as you can imagine, there were a dozen other fantasy creatures recently added to the narrative of Christmas as well.
It’s at that moment that I realized that, like the Israelites of old who combined stories of Baal and stories of Yahweh to create a syncretistic religion of their own, the American church has for the most part created her own deity.
I call him, Santa Jesus.
Despite the fact that Jesus warned us in the Sermon on the Mount that one cannot serve both God and mammon, the American church has decided that perhaps Jesus was exaggerating a bit here. He didn’t REALLY mean you can’t serve both God and money. After all, you have to have money to buy food, clothes, shoes, a house, a college education, cars, iPhones, kitchen gadgets, plasma TV’s, internet and cable service, lawn mowers, bikes, subscriptions, movie tickets, cruise vacations, more shoes, braces, prescriptions, more clothes, and well, you get the idea.
Because we have turned the accumulation of stuff into a virtue. Ironically, this is the exact opposite of the message of the incarnation. Jesus gave up heaven to come to earth. He humbled his deity and became a man. He willingly gave up status to be God with us. But here’s the important part. In doing so he showed us the way. To be a citizen of His Kingdom, we must embrace poverty.
But poverty has become a sin in our culture. It’s something we feel needs to be fixed. Now, when I say poverty, I’m not talking about becoming homeless and dependent on welfare. I understand that there is a degree of hyperbole in Jesus’ teaching. But Jesus often used hyperbole to warn us about some very real dangers, and at the heart of this one is our attitude toward money and material goods.
As we start off in life, we begin with a valid desire for the basics in our culture: an education, a job, a house, a car. But if we are not careful, this can quickly turn into an obsession and even an addiction for more and more stuff. And before long our credit cards are maxed out. In fact, we’ve changed the definition of a “Scrooge” from one who was heartless toward his employees and the poor to someone who hasn’t reached his credit limit buying presents.
But Jesus taught his disciples to “store up treasures in heaven” by recognizing that money and status are an illusion. True wealth comes from embracing poverty; i.e., to simply be content. To stop and say, “You know, I have enough. I don’t want anything more.” And then the next step, which is, “I need to start giving some of this stuff away.”
But this is becoming increasingly hard in a church culture that encourages a belief in a Santa Jesus who tells us to want more so that he can bless us more. Every now and then I hear a very practical sermon explaining to us how to avoid the “naughty” list, ensuring that we have won God’s favor by being placed on the “nice” list. Consequently, our prayers have become long Christmas lists of things we want/need. We ask Santa Jesus for good grades, a handsome spouse, a well-paying job, to take good care of grandma’s shingles, and on and on. We’ve been taught that Santa Jesus wants us to be blessed in life, which we interpret to mean that he wants us to have everything. And I mean everything. After all, we serve an infinite God. His wallet can take it
We take out of context little phrases like, “You have not because you ask not” and we run with it, while ignoring passages where Jesus tells the rich young ruler that if he truly wants salvation, he must give away all his possession to the poor. That’s works theology, we conclude. We are saved by faith. Which means he doesn’t have to do anything. And besides, Jesus wants us to be rich. Jesus obviously was just coming down hard on this guy because he was greedy. He didn’t mean for everyone to follow this command. That’s impractical. And besides, I’m not greedy.
Santa Jesus even inspires church leaders with the notion that in order to “be the church” we must have large buildings with padded pews, air-conditioning and heating, a top quality sound system, lighting, tasteful decorations, a coffee bar, bowling alley, tennis courts, driving range, and a beach volleyball court. Because that’s what it takes in our culture to reach the lost. So Santa Jesus must want us to have all of these things.
Santa Jesus has even changed our motivation for giving. No longer do we give to become poorer, simpler, more focused on the things that matter. Now we give so that Santa Jesus can bless us two, three, even four-fold. The idea is that we give someone in need ten dollars, and we can expect Santa Jesus to send us a fifty-dollar present, like a cosmic pyramid scheme.
Now, as a former church planter, I’m fully aware of the need to be culturally relevant. Church leaders are in a catch-22 of sorts. If you don’t’ provide air-conditioning and a place to sit, people aren’t going to show up. But as a church historian, I’ve often wondered what would happen if we could magically transport 100 American Christians back to the first century. How many of them would be still attending church in a year? How many of them could endure a faith community that demanded real risk and sacrifice in the face of a truly hostile society? Today, sacrifice might mean putting up with a pastor who preaches boring sermons, or giving to the building fund that money we set aside for a dream vacation. A far cry from the kind of commitment pastors like Polycarp and Ignatius expected from their flocks.
A while ago I watched a news program where Bob Simon interviewed Bartholomew, the head of the Orthodox Church. He resides in Istanbul, Turkey, a place that is 99 percent Muslim. Over the decades, he has watched the church in his country dwindle from a couple a million to about 4,000, mainly due to the expulsion of his members by the Turkish government, but also by the cultural oppression his people face just to show up at church. In fact, during the interview, Bartholomew had to cut a visit short because of a death threat.
Here’s an excerpt from the transcript.
Do you sometimes fear that the community will be wiped out?” Simon asked.
“Not really,” the patriarch replied. “We survived. We do believe in miracles…. This is the continuation of Jerusalem. And for us, it is equally a holy and sacred land. We prefer to stay here, even crucified sometimes. Because in the gospel, it is written that it is given to us not only to believe in Christ, but also to suffer for Christ,” the patriarch said.
Hmmmm. Really?! Because that’s not what Santa Jesus says.