You know what would be great, if on Christmas we had one of the best reasons ever in the history of the world to celebrate and instead turned it into another lame lecture on morality.
I apologize for starting with rotten sarcasm on this cherished evening. But the appointed Titus reading messes up Christmas, with its aloof austerity and expectations that because of Jesus we have to act proper. I can’t help but point out how in faith sometimes we got it, and sometimes we royally blew it.
Let’s get you up to speed with about three sentences of backstory Bible study. Jesus was born, right? Over the years, he did and said some stuff until he was crucified—killed on a cross—and on the third day rose from the dead. With me?
From that first Easter Sunday (if not before), his followers have been left trying to figure it out, to make sense of him. They called him Savior. They said it was good news, that he showed us God in a way nothing else had, which made a huge difference for our lives and maybe all creation, the whole cosmos. The earliest Christians saw it as an abundance of grace, as forgiveness that left out or forgot or excluded nobody. They practiced radical hospitality and sharing and compassion and peace, because that’s what they understood Jesus to be about, what God wanted for all of us. The earliest practicers of the good news saw everyone as favored by God and had understandings on taking care of each other and including females and class-relations and economics that were ahead of their time.
Way ahead. See, Titus and his next generation came along, seemingly intent on flubbing it up. They decided to ditch the amazing equality and abundant love and the entirety of life absolutely drenched in God’s grace. Forsaking that, they wanted instead to cling to power and re-entrench patriarchy and male dominance and privileges of status. And since, it’s taken us 18 or 1900 years to get back to standing against oppression and allowing women to have a voice and saying you don’t have to be special to be welcome here. Some of those persistent problems we still struggle against, with the church too often toiling the opposite direction, naming sinners to be cast out while claiming divine sanction for ourselves.
And so Titus—that forgettable dog of a reading dragged out all over the world for tonight—botches the birth of Jesus, turning gift into demand. But there it is anyway, showing that sometimes we get it and sometimes we get it backward. Here’s a repeat for you (as if you asked for the reminder): it blathers on about “training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, to live lives that are self-controlled, upright and godly.” Lest there’s lingering doubt about what malarkey this is, earlier in the chapter tells women to be submissive to their husbands and take care of children and the household. It says slaves shouldn’t talk back to masters. It was written directly to undermine the grace-filled lives of earlier Christians.
More to the point, I’m just sure you arrived here on Christmas Eve yearning, practically begging, to hear a lesson on what Titus calls “temperance, seriousness, and prudence.” Any “amens” to that? You know already that’s not what Christmas is about. It’s not why Jesus was born. It’s not how we celebrate. Prudish self-control and lack of passion is not the heart of what God is up to. It gets God backward, cramming God into a message of self-serving morality. Worst, it replaces joyful abundance with a lame, droning threat.
A related example of such ditching the good news for a threat is familiar in what we’ve been doing for two months with Santa Claus. He should be the mark of generosity and free gifts this season, but instead we turn him into a surveillance camera of “Santa’s watching and knows if you’re naughty.” It reverses the main point. So, of the discipline-surveillance Santa, Titus is a theological version, which makes it an even more rotten corruption.
To explain, I’d like to switch from sarcasm to sacrament. Sacrament is a word that means something like “sacred thing” or “holy stuff.” Sacraments are physical signs of God. We look around us and try to figure out where God is in the midst of our existence. We tend to figure certain people or situations are more blessed, to locate God’s presence as more involved in one place than another.
Titus claims this locale is in acting proper, that good behavior gets you closer to God and so work ethic dictates whether God is with you. Our society goes on to add the association with power and prestige, further guessing that wealth is a sign of blessing, making money our sacrament, our sign of God. Likewise, the old saying “cleanliness is next to godliness” imagines that dust and debris and grime block God, that clearing away bad things gets you next to God. So our tendency is almost toward anti-sacrament, not about stuff where God is, but what we get rid of or escape in order to find God, separating God from the mess of regular life.
But now visualize Christmas…the birth of Jesus…this baby lying in a manger. We may choose antibiotic sterility, but God was born pro-biota, amid the bacteria, the germs, and—we should be honest—the animal poop! Picture how much spit and saliva livestock drool out of their snouts. Then notice how those suspect, podunk first-timer parents put baby Jesus right in the manger feed-trough where the cud-chewers had been licking! They also came with poor planning, without reservations booked at the inn, had no huffy claims to privilege, were left out in the cold.
That’s where we look to find God! Christmas upends our typical sacramental biases of where we wanted to implicate God. If God isn’t primarily in our morality. If God isn’t invested in the “bigger is better” development program. If God isn’t running an exclusive operation. If God isn’t flashy or austere or high and mighty in any regard. With this ultimate revelation of God for us, our sacrament, our sign of God turns up far from power or glory or success or perfection or acting so self-righteously upright or being neat and tidy. Our sacrament at Christmas is the opposite of the magnificent, immaculate, proper, or in any way “just right” but is rather stinky and crowded and a bit crude.
Yet this also says that God’s presence is in some truly miraculous places. If we are able to see God asleep in the feed-trough, waking only to bawl his head off, with grungy shepherds not lingering out in the labor and delivery waiting room but busting right in—since God is there, God is also able to be many other unexpected places. Most importantly, God is abiding with you, not waiting for you to get your screwed-up act together. God is with you when life seems like a big ol’ mess and way too cluttered and not going well at all. God is most definitely there when things are not “just right.”
In fact, that’s exactly why Jesus arrived, not to be a heavenly boss or to reinforce our dominating stereotypes but to be with you in compassion, in blessing through the worst moments, otherwise you wouldn’t really need a Savior. He was born poor and outcast. He spent time with the sick and the losers around him, not to mope or reprimand but to host a party. In the end he went to the cross and into his tomb so you may know God doesn’t evaporate into thin air but abides with you through it all. That’s what we begin to see tonight, not a conquering overlord sealed off behind a hypoallergenic barrier, but one who is passionate about giving himself away, intimately involved in the care of sustaining life, from a vulnerable baby to the stretch of solar systems, and you in the complex, messy midst of it.
One more word on sacraments of this God, words from Jesus himself. This has been about seeing God in sorrow or suffering or sloppiness. But in our usual sense of sacraments, we typically point to two events that Jesus shares with us, where he promises to be found. We started the service turned toward the baptismal font, and near the end, we’ll gather around this table. In water, and in bread and wine, whether completely drenched in grace or snuck in under the smallest morsel, these common, crude elements of our world become holy stuff because with them Jesus has promised forgiveness for what you’ve done wrong, to connect you again to God, to remain with you in love.
So you may expect, then, the presence of Jesus with you, not just on the most holy and peaceful night of the year, but through the grind of every day. Not just when you get exactly what you want, but in disappointments. Not just when all is calm and bright, but through the disturbing darkness. Not just when things are going well and you’re doing exactly what you should be, but when it’s all screwed up and you’re in pain or you are a pain.
Nevertheless, in Jesus, God is here, always for you. That’s why we celebrate and can say Merry Christmas.