DECEMBER 7, 2022
Do you sometimes get bored with church . . . and even Jesus?
If you’ve been a Christian for a long time (and I have, probably longer than some of you have been alive), and while neither of us will publicly admit it, we do get bored with it all. The formal name for that is “acedia,” one of the seven deadly sins. While acedia is often translated as “sloth” or “laziness,” that’s not what it is. It is boredom.
Boredom is probably more of a problem for me than for you. I’m the most religious friend you have and, like going into a bakery while on a diet, it’s an opportunity on steroids.
When I was a young pastor, the Catholic funeral home owner in town liked me. He wanted to help out the young pastor who didn’t make much money, so he decided to have me officiate at all the funerals of people who didn’t have any clergy connections. I often did as many as three funeral services a week, and the best part was that my friend paid me $25 for each one. It was a great deal, and the money was good.
But then Jesus messed it up. He still does that fairly often in my life.
It started in the middle of a service when I realized I didn’t even know the gender of the deceased. Very often, the check had become more important to me than the bereaving family. But even worse, I was going through the motions of a Christian funeral with all the Scripture and God words and got bored with it. I was like the railroad worker whose job description was tapping on the train wheels in the terminal. When asked why, he said he didn’t know, “but I never miss one.” I started feeling dirty about the whole thing. I didn’t know a lot about Jesus in those days, but I knew enough that I was becoming a “hired gun,” and that wasn’t my calling. So, I repented and quit.
If you say I told you that story, I’ll say you lied. But even if you tell people, the spiritual statute of limitations has run out. So, there.
I remembered this story when we recently interviewed Trevin Wax about his book, The Thrill of Orthodoxy: Rediscovering the Adventure of Christian Faith. It’s a great book and a reminder that the Christian faith, when it’s the “real deal” and “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints”(Jude 3), is quite astonishing. My funeral experience was similar to Trevin’s description of faith when the “gold grows dim.” Faith can become an empty ritual, a boring duty, and yet another tiresome but necessary pursuit.
There is no time during the Christian calendar when that is more possible than at Christmas. Christmas can be like an old and cracked Christmas ornament we keep using because it has good memories. We’ve “been there and done that” so often that “the thrill is gone.” Yesterday, Pete Alwinson and I recorded the Christmas week for the Key Life broadcast. Pete mentioned that everybody says that Christmas is for children. “No, it’s not,” Pete said, “Christmas is for everybody who belongs to Jesus.” It is, but sometimes there is so much of it, and we have done it so often, that the astonishment, joy, and exciting part of Christmas gets lost. One of the hard things about being a preacher at Christmas is writing a Christmas sermon. It’s all been said a ton of times, and the preacher has to struggle to say it again in a different way for their own sake and that of the congregation. Frankly, I have the same problem in writing this letter to you.
At Christmas, that happens to me. It’s one of the reasons my family, the Key Life staff, and friends kid me about being a Scrooge. I don’t try to correct them and just say “Bah Humbug!” in response, but the truth is that Christmas has its “magic” for me, too. Sometimes that magic happens throughout the season, but always on Christmas Eve, my favorite worship service of the entire year. Everything is done that needed to be done then; I don’t have to do any more shopping, the Christmas parties are over, and the hassle has ended. That’s when Jesus always comes.
So, let me tell you how the magic of Christmas happens for me. You might find it helpful or not, but it’s my witness. I need to tell somebody, and you’re it.
First, Jesus comes at Christmas because . . . uh . . . well, actually, I’m not sure why. It’s a supernatural occurrence that can’t be manufactured with Christmas music, and one can’t fake it until one makes it. Pretending doesn’t work, and neither does religion. All I have to be is needy. Come to think of it, that’s not just true at Christmas; it’s true all the time. Thirst and hunger are, as it were, a prayer for water and bread. My neediness is the prayer I offer at Christmas.
The truth is that there is a lot to dislike about Christmas. We live in what has become a secular culture for all intents and purposes. Christmas has become a holiday with nothing to celebrate. Putting Jesus back into Christmas isn’t just a slogan and a hope . . . it’s an impossibility. My late friend Rusty Anderson used to advocate for taking Jesus out of Christmas, that Christians have a separate day to celebrate Christ’s birth. “Then,” Rusty said, “we can enjoy the parties without feeling guilty that Jesus isn’t a part of it.”
When David confessed his shame and guilt, he cried out in the darkness, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:12). That can be the cry of a Scrooge at Christmas, too: “Lord, restore to me the joy of Christmas and replace my cynical heart with a willing heart open to the astonishment and joy of Christmas.”
Another way the magic comes for me is to reexamine the Christmas narrative and affirm its veracity. I try to picture the stable with all of its good and bad smells, put my sleeping bag next to those of the shepherds, and sing with the angels who made the mother of all birth announcements. The culture of Christmas becomes so mixed up (while not necessarily bad things) with boys with drums, reindeer with red noses, and old fat guys with white beards that it is easy to start confusing myth with reality. In fact, for me, it’s important that I intentionally set aside all the Christmas traditions and stories and revisit the actual historical facts.
God came. Yes, that God, the one who is the Creator, Ruler, and Sustainer of everything. When Matthew recounts the history of the incarnation, he records what the angel told Joseph, “you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). If that doesn’t shatter the malaise of boredom, nothing else will. I’m forgiven, loved, and eternal. It’s not a nice pipe dream or an “I hope it’s true” thing. It’s a fact.
I have a friend who has gone through some very horrible things. He said it was like a nightmare from which one wakes and is glad it was only a dream. He said, “My situation is different. When I wake from a fitful sleep, it’s not a relief because my situation is the nightmare.” That’s sad. But what if you woke from the nightmare of a fallen world—your struggle with sin and pain, the fear, and the skewed and confusing political and social darkness—to discover that the nightmare really was just a passing dream and the reality was the sunshine of a beautiful and perfect day? That’s what Christmas is. The events of Christmas are all true and, among other things, those events remind us that the nightmare isn’t the reality because, in fact, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . . full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
There is one other thing that creates the magic for this old Scrooge. It is the acceptance (and sometimes even the affirmation) of the chaos of Christmas. “Go with the flow” is, of course, a silly cliché. (If you’re in a flood and you go with the flow, it can get you killed.) But when we understand the fact of a sovereign God, the cliché turns into a powerful truth. God is the “flow,” and all of it is under his oversight and love—all of it. And that includes Christmas with all of its chaos. One of the things I’ve disliked about Christmas (and sometimes still do) is that people are crazy at Christmas, and nothing can be controlled or fixed. I wince when I see people wearing those silly Santa hats. (And please don’t send me one. I have 40 of them, and I have yet to wear even one.) But my irritation often turns to praise if I can remember the God behind the hats, the parties, the mall Christmas music, and all the trinket sellers.
Praise is at the very heart of Christmas.
Luke recounts the visit of the angels to the shepherds. Shepherding is a boring job, a job that nobody would do unless they had to do it. If I were God, I would have sent the angels to somebody important, but God’s ways are different. He often sends his most important messages to nobodies. This time God decided to entrust his message to the working-class shepherds. The angel said to the shepherds to not be afraid because “I bring you good news of great joy . . . for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). And then the angels sang (the text doesn’t say they sang it, but they did):
Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those
with whom he is pleased!
That anthem would have pleased even Handel. It’s the song I sing at Christmas.
He asked me to tell you why.