Santa, Resolutions, & Grace
As we look forward to our New Year's Eve Services this weekend at 9a & 11a, we are provided with an opportunity to carry the message we've seen all fall in the book of Romans into a new way of seeing our lives, that by faith in Christ we are "not under the law, but under grace.” (6:14)
Through the holiday season we are able to see examples of the natural inclination of our hearts to go back to being under the law.
This past week in our Christmas celebrations many of us watched movies and sang songs about a magical all-seeing bearded man who judges us as either naughty or nice. We placed elves on our shelves. We felt the fear, guilt, and shame of buying Christmas gifts for every single human being we’ve ever met, and that the each of those gifts would be memorable and meaningful. Our expectations for ourselves crushed us before we even got the stockings up. We’ve all spent this past month under the tyranny of the little Christmas law and its condemnation.
New Year's Resolutions are just another example of how the law works this effect on us.
On December 31, humans around planet Earth give themselves a new law or resolution for the next year. These laws are good, they’re beneficial, they may even be fairly simple and doable. We declare we’re going to start working out, be more present at home, start eating healthier, read a book a month, or stop interrupting people, our little laws goes on an on.
But year after year, we are unable to obey our laws. Before we even get to Valentine’s Day the gyms are empty, our freezers have four types of ice cream, and our books remain unopened as we remind Netflix that yes, we are still watching.
If we can’t even obey our little new year’s laws to lose a few pounds, what hope do we have in obeying God’s law? As Jesus summarized it, to love God with all that we are and to love others as ourselves.
As Martin Luther wrote in 1518: “The law says, ‘Do this,’ and it is never done.”
Santa Claus and his twice-checked list, New Year’s Resolutions, and the Ten Commandments all reveal our deep need for grace and the empowering work of the Holy Spirit.
As we move into 2018 I would ask you to consider leaving behind New Year resolutions centered around what you will accomplish and consider a New Year prayer centered around God and what he might do this next year and the grace to receive it all.
As a further meditation on this topic of Grace, the Law, and the Holidays, posted below is an excerpt from “Law & Gospel” by Mockingbird ministries that our staff pastors read this fall.
There is no more subversive song than “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” But it’s not subversive for the reasons that religious people usually take issue with Santa, when they lament the commercialization and ‘secularization’ disguised in the detour from Bethlehem to the North Pole. No, that holiday classic is so subversive on account of how effectively it sabotages the beating heart of Christmas, which has to do with giving.
We tell children that Santa Claus comes down the chimney to deliver them presents. To shower them with gifts. The song paints a different picture: “He’s making a list/ He’s checking it twice/ He’s gonna find out/ who’s naughty and nice.” Nice children get toys, naughty ones lumps of coal.
This Santa Claus is not actually a giver of gifts. He’s in the business of doling out reward and punishment.
As we all know, any gift premised on deserving is not really a gift at all. It’s more of a paycheck, an act based on reciprocity rather than generosity. A gift, on the other hand, is a decidedly lopsided transaction, and therefore a fitting image for Christmas, which marks the remembrance of Christ’s birth.
The baby Jesus represents pure Gift, a light shining on those who dwell in darkness, the revelation of God’s love in all its vulnerability and impossibility. Like all true gifts, he arrives unbidden—a great and glorious surprise, a savior given to those who don’t deserve one. As the one who will “save people from their sins” (Mt 1:21), the Christ child signifies something startlingly new and unassailably good.
In his life and ministry, Christ would bear out this divine generosity. He would become a walking euphemism for it. Again, those who welcomed him most enthusiastically would be they whose lives had stripped them of any illusions about deservedness, a.k.a. sinners. Their only way of receiving him was as a gift. This is what we see in Christ’s treatment of lepers and tax collectors and prostitutes and reprobates—he does not relate to them on the basis of what they bring to the table but on the basis of who he is. And it makes every difference. He is the ‘Yes’ to the world’s ‘No’ (2 Cor 1:20).
Jesus praises children for this very reason; their inability to earn is not up for debate. They are powerless and consequently have yet to turn love into a bartering system. Indeed, the strongest resistance Christ encounters comes from those who insist on paying for what is offered freely, who refuse to give up their rights—the place they feel their sweat has earned them on the Listmaker-in-the-Sky’s scorecard.
Though the law is conditional—a two-way street—the gift of Christ is unconditional. His affection cannot be leveraged or merited. This is what we mean when we talk about the attitude of grace, which is one-way love, or ‘love in the midst of deserved judgment.’ Jesus simply gave—his attention, his power, his very self—and to the wrong people. This is why Robert Capon wrote, “Grace works without requiring anything on our part. It’s not expensive. It’s not even cheap. It’s free.”
Most things in life are complicated, but this is not one of those things. Something is either a gift or a wage—it can’t be a little of each (Rm 5:15). The moment that a price or condition enters the equation, it is no longer a gift, no longer grace.
This applies to present-tense conditions just as much as future-tense ones. If a friend gives us a car for example, out of the blue, most of us would pause before accepting. We appreciate the gesture perhaps, but what’s the catch? Is our friend ‘buying’ our loyalty (and what does that say about our friendship)? Is there an unspoken expectation that we’ll do a favor-in-kind some day? Are we in Godfather territory? We harbor a knee-jerk suspicion of the excessively generous, and for good reason. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. A present with strings attached is a bribe, not a gift.