There is a Grinch lurking and working in our world seeking to steal Christmas. This Grinch is alive and real and every bit as mean and vile as that outcast of Whoville whose soul was an appalling dump heap overflowing with the most disgraceful assortment of rubbish imaginable mangled up in tangled up knots. This Grinch can be found in every city, in every town, and in every rural community throughout our land. However, this Grinch is not among the usual suspects of the annually accused.
This Grinch is not Political Correctness. This Grinch is not the liberal sales clerk at Target greeting people on Christmas Eve with “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” After all, wouldn’t the God who humbly came down to be born in the unpretentiousness of a stable want us to show a little humility to a devout Jew on that holy night, which, this year, also happens to be the last night of Chanukah?
Nor do I believe this Grinch is Secularism. Santa Claus, tiny little elves, flying reindeer, Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman are a magical, wonderful part of this season that makes the eyes of children aglow. Again, I cannot imagine the Christ, Christmas Himself, calling things that bring such joy to children anything but holy and sacred.
But what about the Grinches of Consumerism, Greed and Materialism? What about the Grinch of Black Friday which is now taking over Thursday? What about the monsters of big business forcing people like my nineteen year-old son to work on Thanksgiving, preventing him from sharing a meal with his grandparents? Surely their hearts’ are nothing more than empty holes. Their brains are full of spiders, and they’ve got garlic in their souls.
They are certainly Grinchy, but as Grinchy as capitalism can be, I believe there is even a greater Grinch in our midst today, a Grinch even more nauseating and foul. There is a more crooked Grinch lurking and working in our world threatening to keep Christmas from coming.
To prepare the world for Christmas, for the coming of Christ into the world, John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We are told that people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him to be baptized, confessing their sins.
John the Baptizer was proclaiming a baptism of repentance. The Greek word translated repent, literally means to think differently, to see things differently. It means to see the world, ourselves, and God differently. John was proclaiming the good news of Christmas. He was trying to get the people to understand and to see that God is not far away from us but is very much with us. God is not against us, but is very much for us, and God is more alive and more at work in this world than we can sometimes believe. The message of Christmas can be summed up in two beloved verses of scripture:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16-17 NRSV).
And when people heard this message, they came from all over and did something that is a very difficult thing to do if you think God is against you, or you see that all of your sin and mess have separated you from God. They came from all over confessing their sins.
They came just as they were. They came openly, honestly, and transparently. They came freely, fearlessly and audaciously laying bare their imperfect souls before John, others and God. They came knowing that they would not be judged. They came seeing that they would not be condemned. They came with a new understanding that they would be accepted, a new vision that they would be forgiven. They came to be immersed in the unconditional love of God, to be enveloped by the unreserved grace of God. They came in the same spirit that lowly, sinful, shepherds came to kneel and worship before the manger. They came to the muddy banks of the Jordan River to join hands with fellow sinners and celebrate the good news of Christmas.
And ever since that Christmas was celebrated on that day through the honest confession of sin, there have been Grinches in every time in every land determined to stop it.
How does the Grinch steal Christmas? By simply deterring the confession of sins. By inhibiting such open honesty by proclaiming a message that is the exact opposite of the Christmas message.
The Christmas message is: “For God so loved the world…”
“God doesn’t love this world,” says the Grinch with a sour Grinchy frown. “God despises this world. Thus God wants people to separate themselves from this world, retreat into safe sanctuaries with the pure who don’t sin to smugly wait to one day escape to glory with kith and kin.”
“…that he gave his only Son…” says Christmas.
“God didn’t really give his Son,” the old Grinchy Claus hisses. “If God gave his Son, that would infer that salvation is free, no strings attached, no restrictions at all. “Surely,” says the Grinch “God wants people to earn this gift with right lifestyles, right beliefs, and right deeds after all.”
Christmas says: “…so that everyone who believes may not perish but have eternal life…”
The Grinch thinks up a lie and thinks it up quick: “Well, not everyone. Not the entitled. Not the undeserving. Not those who drink, party and cuss. God only helps and gives eternity to those who are willing to help themselves, those who think, look, believe and worship like us.”
The Christmas message is: “…God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world…”
“Of course God did,” the Grinch counters with a smile most unpleasant, “And God wants us to look down our noses and judge others as if they smell, point our fingers at their sins and preach about Hell.”
“….but in order that the world might be saved through him,” says Christmas.
“Not saved but destroyed,” the Grinch laughs in his throat. “Haven’t you heard of Armageddon, the Apocalypse and the Judgment Day? Why else would there be hurricanes, earthquakes, and so much AIDS and Ebola today?”
John, the one preparing the world for Christmas reveals that Christmas begins with the confessing of sin, and infers that if any Grinch wants to steal Christmas, if any Grinch wants to keep Christmas from coming, they need to merely discourage such confession.
So who is this Grinch that wants to steal Christmas?
Why, just ask yourself: Where is the one place in the world where the confession of sin is most difficult? In a bar with a total stranger? At a coffee shop with a close friend? In the work place with a co-worker? No, sadly, it can be right here, right now, in this place that claims to proclaim the true reason for the season, in this place that claims to prepare the hearts of all to receive Christmas. The place that claims to be the most Grinchless place in the world, if we are not careful, can sometimes the most Grinchy.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote about this Grinch:
Pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everyone must conceal their sin from themselves and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy.[i]
And Quaker Theologian Richard Foster made the following observation about this Grinch:
Confession is so difficult a discipline for us partly because we view the believing community as a fellowship of saints before we see it as a fellowship of sinners. We come to feel that everyone else has advanced so far into holiness that we are isolated and alone in our sin. We could not bear to reveal our failures and shortcomings to others. We imagine that we are the only ones who have not stepped onto the high road to heaven. . . . But if we know that the people of God are first a fellowship of sinners we are freed to hear the unconditional call of God’s love and to confess our need openly before our brothers and sisters. We know that we are not alone in our sin. The fear and pride which cling to us like barnacles cling to others also. In acts of mutual confession we release the power that heals. Our humanity is no longer denied but transformed.[ii]
I have often said that of any place on this fragmented planet, the church should be a place where all people are welcomed to join a community of grace, love and forgiveness. Without fear of being judged, condemned and ridiculed, all people should feel welcomed to come as they are and honestly and openly confess their sinfulness and brokenness. And receive grace. Receive love. Receive salvation.[iii] Receive Christmas.
So, whenever the church creates an environment that prohibits honesty, openness, and transparency; encourages people to be fake, conceal their pain, pretend to be good, upright and holy, their lives devoid of any real sin, mess or gunk; well, the three words that best describe it are as follows, and I quote, “Stink, stank, stunk.”
[i] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, 1939.
[ii] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 1978