Jesus is the reason for the Christmas season, but what exactly does that mean? Janine Pumilia explores faith and the Messiah at the advent of our holiday season.
I cross the Rock River every day on the way to work from my northwest Rockford home. Each time I do, I feel like I’m greeting an old childhood friend. The river is one of those things in this city that brings us all together – just as our faith could be.
Rockford is symbolic of our nation – two worlds in one, each invisible to the other. Traversing some of Rockford’s impoverished neighborhoods on my way home after work keeps me grounded. Nearly 425,000 people in the Northern Illinois Food Bank service area are considered “food insecure.” Nearly half of them are children, and many are elderly, disabled, and/or veterans who served our country. The oppressed are all around us.
My world view starts and ends with faith, but the part in between is often fuzzy. I’m not the first human to wonder what it all means. I was recently puttering around in the Bible, looking up places where the word “reason” is used. I was thinking about that trite-but-true jingle, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Yes Jesus is the reason. Neither believer nor unbeliever would otherwise be hauling out the blinking lights and poinsettia paper plates.
For that matter, the dates on our calendars wouldn’t be the same without Jesus. All of history is divided into two sections – before and after Jesus came. And who would have settled the New World, if Christian pilgrims hadn’t been fleeing religious persecution? (I tend to overthink these things.)
My search for “reason” led me to Isaiah 1:18.
“Come now, let us reason [also translated “settle the matter”] together, says the Lord: Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (English Standard version).
Reasoning together with God.
Reasoning together with God.
Reasoning together with God.
I was delighted the word “reason” led me to Isaiah, because of all the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah accurately predicted the most stunning detail about the Messiah-to-come. He’s often quoted at Christmastime, and the verse neatly sums up the purpose of Christ’s coming: to erase our sins and bring us close to God.
Then I read the context of that verse and saw how exasperated God was with people at that moment, even as He promised a future of reconciliation.This wasn’t uncommon. God constantly rescued Israel, only to see the people ignore what He said was important, even while they projected religious piety.
Isaiah 1:11-14: “The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and fattened animals … Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me … Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.”
These comments were directed not to pagans, but to Israel. I couldn’t help wondering what he thinks of our appointed festivals, and the connection we’ve built between “Black Friday” and Christ’s birth.
Verses 15-17: “Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
And then, as if longing for a reconciliation that won’t come for another thousand years:
Verses 1:18-20: “Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (NIV)
Call me crazy, but I think we Christians need to spend a lot more time asking ourselves what the will of God is. And isn’t. More reading scripture and less tangling up our faith with nationalism and politics and what people say on talk radio might help.
When Jesus was asked what God really wants from us, he kept the answer simple: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40 NIV)
To love God is to care about what He cares about. And he cares about the oppressed. A lot. It’s everywhere throughout the Old Testament and New. I’m not really sure why this isn’t the whole emphasis of the church, rather than just a side dish at the holiday dinner table.
In Luke 4:18, when Jesus is in his hometown of Nazareth at the start of his ministry, he quotes Isaiah (and nearly gets tossed over a cliff for it, by verse 4:30).
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus fulfilled that prophecy perfectly during his brief ministry on earth, then handed the keys to the car over to us and said, “Your turn. But don’t worry, the holy spirit will be with you.”
I think about these things, as I zip around town through the usual mish-mash of religious and secular symbolism. I’m no saint, and no holy roller. I don’t do anything remarkable to help the sick, poor or oppressed. Heck, making magazines, paying off my kids’ college loans and stealing some time with my hubby occupy most of my thought life.
But I don’t like to be a hypocrite, either. I don’t want to pretend that the misery of hunger, poverty, sickness and sorrow doesn’t exist all around me, or that I’m powerless to do anything about it. And I know many other people feel the same way.
God loves us without condition. And unlike Isaiah, we live in an age of grace, thanks to that birthday baby we’re celebrating. But sometimes I pause between the tending of endless details and throw up my hands to Heaven. “What in the heck are we doing down here?” I ask. “How do You put up with us?”
We’ve been given so much, and maybe that’s our undoing. All around the world, the gospel spreads fastest among the humble – those who still recognize their need for God. The poor, sick, imprisoned, oppressed, heartbroken.
Have we forgotten that we need Him, just as Israel did time and again?
Which brings us back to, “Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord. Stop doing wrong. Learn to do right. Seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless. Plead the case of the widow.”
and “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40).
For whatever they’re worth, these words are my Christmas gift to you – some private thoughts I’ll be contemplating all season and beyond. After all, the real subject of Christmas is Christ.