“Discovering” Jesus

Some places in America are observing Columbus Day today. This has become a controversial subject. For many years, schoolchildren were taught that Christopher Columbus, an Italian explorer working for the Spanish, “discovered” America when he landed on the island of Hispaniola in 1492.

Modern scholars are offended by this for a variety of reasons. First, there were already people in the Americas– Columbus didn’t “discover” a new-found continent devoid of people or culture. Just because the Spanish court, and most of Europe, didn’t recognize the existence of North and South America and the Caribbean, doesn’t mean they were undiscovered. It only means they were undiscovered by the major European powers. Scholars go on to argue that Columbus and the Spanish (and the French and English and Portuguese who followed) did not so much “discover” the “New World;” they invaded and stole it from those who were living here “in peace.”

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I disagree with the way scholars have “revised” the history of Western culture. But it causes me to think of how, over the years, we have also revised the message of the Gospel, and our concept of Christianity.

Much like the modern scholars’ version of Columbus “Discovering” America, many people like to talk about “discovering” Christianity. We “encounter” the Gospel. Maybe we join a local congregation of believers, or a Bible study group. It’s exciting– at first. It is new and amazing in its message of hope and love and grace.

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But then we hear ugly stories of Christians who are hateful, judgmental, condemning, greedy, hypocritical, and hurtful. “That can’t be true; that can’t be what Christianity is about,” we say. And so we vow that “our” Christianity will be different. We adapt our message to the current trends in our society. We tailor our message to our friends and neighbors, even when the it’s no longer true. We wipe out and “conquer” and reshape those verses that cause offense. We recreate Jesus into a “great teacher,” a pal or a guru, rather than a Sovereign Savior. We end up following our own gospel, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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Or, we double down on legalism, making our walk with Christ more like a walk with His accusers, the Pharisees. We scream and argue about the “right” way to worship, or dress, or manage money. And we seek to wipe out those who don’t follow our traditions. We remove the promise of Grace from our Christianity, and replace it with judgment.

Except it isn’t “our” Christianity. We haven’t “discovered” the Gospel to make it into a “new” and better religion. We haven’t “discovered” a Jesus who is kinder or more accepting or less judgmental than He ever was. And We don’t follow a Jesus who refuses to love those who are not perfect or forgive those who have “fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

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Our “discovery” of Jesus should be a lifelong discovery– a lifelong journey of becoming who He wants us to be; becoming more like who He really is. Part of that is living out our faith in a world that refuses to understand or accept the Gospel. Part of it is living our lives according to the Bible’s principles, and not our culture’s trends. Part of it is trusting that God’s word never changes, even when the world around it does. And part of it is a consistent pursuit and practice of humble and earnest prayer. Otherwise, we may well be guilty of the same conquest and colonization as those we are condemning who came before us.

On a Cold Winter’s Night…

One of the great classic Christmas carols, “The First Noel,” describes the night of Christ’s birth as a “cold winter’s night, that was so deep.”

It is dreamy and dramatic to think of Jesus coming into a cold, dark, dreary (and even snowy) world, bringing angels, glorious stars, kings bearing expensive gifts, and joyous songs.

In the past two posts, we’ve looked at Jesus as the Light of the World, and the Word of God; we’ve looked at Advent as a time of darkness and silence, in anticipation of the coming light and the Gospel. The idea that the world before the Birth of the Savior was cold continues the pattern of absence. Darkness does not exist independently. Neither does silence or cold. Each is the absence of something else– Light, sound, warmth–and it can only be known by the degree to which its opposite is reduced, distant, or absent.
In contrast, the light, sound, or warmth is made more evident in contrast with its opposite–we may not notice a slight difference in lighting on a sunny day, or a slight difference in temperature; but a candle in a dark room, or a whisper in a silent auditorium has a dramatic effect.

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We don’t actually know the exact date of Jesus’ birth, and while December falls during winter, that doesn’t always mean a cold night in every part of the world. If shepherds were watching their flocks in fields just outside of Bethlehem, it is not likely that the temperatures were below freezing, or that there was snow and ice all around. The Middle East is not known for icy winters, after all. Nighttime generally brings colder temperatures, and it may be close to freezing by the middle of the night if you have no fire or protection from the wind, but a “cold winter’s night” is more likely to be found in Minnesota or Finland, not in Bethlehem, and usually in the middle of winter– January– rather than the beginning of the season.

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However, just like the darkness and silence, the cold of that first Christmas was spiritual in nature. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+1%3A9-12&version=ESV). Jesus entered a frigid world– a world of closed-off people, suspicious, oppressed, angry, sick, and world-weary. Hatred can be cold, but colder still is apathy and disdain and hopelessness. The world of Advent is a world desperate for the light and heat and sound of God’s love– not because God is absent, but because people have moved so far away from Him. The light becomes dimmer, the songs become a series of indistinct noises, and the cold and damp of night creep into our souls. Today, even with the hope and light of the Gospel story, we take our focus off of the true light of the world, and the true source of warmth and love, and too often focus on the lesser warmth of a new jacket, or the glittering lights of a shopping center, or the strident sounds of greed and envy.

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Jesus may not have come in the cold of midwinter. But He came into a world of cold hearts as a helpless baby in a strange and unwelcoming land. And he was wrapped in rags and placed in a feeding trough– the warmest place that could be found. But even in this tiny, shivering baby, there was the warmth of Pure Love. And it was felt by all who came in contact with Him– shepherds rejoiced, Mary pondered, Wise Men knelt in adoration.

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I love seeing candles and firesides at Christmas time– I love coming into a warm house, full of laughter and love, or singing carols on a cold night, and being invited inside to share the warmth. I love fellowship at church, and sharing a hug and a smile with those I meet. Imagine the warmth of God with us–All of the warmth and life of being wrapped in the arms of Grace, and held by the nail-scarred hands, never to be cold or alone ever again. Can you feel it? Can you anticipate it? Imagine passing that on to someone who has never known such warmth…on a cold winter’s night…

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